Original Fiction – DUNGEON by Gavin Smith
Neren had been in this particular briefing room in Dun Scáith many times before. As she looked across at Uathach’s scarred features and McMasters’ concerned expression, it was starting to feel less like a debrief and more like an interrogation.
“When do you think you were compromised?” Uathach asked. She was the de-facto ruler of Skye, which she used as a training area for Scotland and Ireland’s special forces regiments
“I think from the get go,” Neren told them, again. She was wondering where James was and hoping that he wasn’t being given as hard a time as she was. Her fellow druid, and surfing buddy, was supposed to be technical support, not a field operative; but his particular skill set had been required this time.
“What do you think gave you away?” McMasters asked. The Intelligence Services Department liaison to the Ravens special forces regiment may have been in his eighties but he moved with the vigour of someone half his age, and was blessed with a keen, insightful, and penetrating intellect. Neren didn’t like being on the receiving end of it.
“Maybe because we walked in there with milspec equipment straight from the Ravens’ armoury, or maybe it was the lightning gun.”
“The old-Peacemaker?” Uathach asked.
“If she knew you weren’t who you claimed to be, then why’d she let you continue on the mission?” McMasters asked.
“Because she needed a Sacrificer.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The oil company Chinook transport helicopter clattered its way through the frigid air of the long Arctic dusk. The lights of the oil refinery had long since disappeared over the horizon behind them. Neren suspected that their employer had bribed the pilots a great deal to make this journey, because there was only ice below them now.
Their employer leaned on her gnarled staff of oak by the Chinook’s cargo ramp. She wore a frayed, tattered and ancient-looking brown robe, the hood up. Shadow covered the top of her face but it was unnatural—Neren suspected a minor glamour. She had always felt that druids who went for that sort of theatricality were trying a little bit too hard. Their employer had a narrow, somewhat pointed chin. The tattered brown robe was reasonably shapeless but it concealed a tall, slender figure. Neren also knew that their employer had to be using magic to protect herself from the cold, because even with the rolled up ski mask and the hood of her winter fatigues covering her head, Neren was worried about losing the delicate tips of her pointed ears that had been a gift from her elven parent. Her other parent had been human. Neren had no idea which was which as she had been left for a foundling with the druids during World War II.
She glanced out the closest window. The ice was a series of jagged pressure ridges that looked like white, faintly-glowing mountain ranges in the light of the long dusk. The ridge lines were interspersed with flat planes of snow-covered ice and polynyas, or channels of open water. Neren had cross-trained with the Ravens in Arctic environments on a number of occasions, mostly in Finland and northern Norway, but the icecap may as well have been an alien planet.
“This is messing with my agoraphobia,” James said from the seat next to her, raising his voice just loud enough that only Neren heard over the clatter of the transport helicopter’s tandem rotors. Neren had to laugh at her fellow druid. As an engineer he called upon the power of Goibniu, the metal smith of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the pantheon of gods that the majority of the Scottish and Irish druids venerated. Some said that James had an understanding with Wayland the Smith, as a dwarf this made a degree of success, most of his people venerated either the Æsir or Vanir. Strictly speaking it was heresy, but the druids tended to be much more forgiving about that than the priests of the Olympian Gods. James was stocky, solidly built, his zipped up hood covered his normally braided moustache and goatee. All she could see were two blue eyes looking out at her from the snorkel-like hood.
“I thought dwarves liked the cold?” Neren asked.
“Winter on Skye is more than cold enough for me,” he told her, hugging his solid-stock Benelli M4 tactical shotgun.
“When we get out of there you need your ski mask rolled down and hood pulled back. You need as much peripheral vision as you can get,” Neren told him, serious for a moment. James just nodded.
“Alright, quiet down,” ‘Hauptmann’ Clausewitz told them. His German accent was soft, aristocratic. He had the cold pale beauty that Neren associated with elves; even so, his features looked pinched. Most worryingly Neren saw arrogance in his grey eyes, and arrogance is pretence. His name was an obvious pseudonym. Pseudonyms for military experienced Germanic elves of a certain age always made her suspicious.
◊ ◊ ◊
“Is this Hauptman?” McMasters asked, sliding a printed out black and white photo of the Elven mercenary captain across the desk. Neren glanced down at it. She half expected to see Hauptman dressed in an SS uniform. Instead, he was wearing tiger stripe pattern fatigues, his features obscured by camo-paint, carrying a CAR-15 carbine. Someone had written Laos, 1971 in black marker pen at the bottom of the picture, followed by: Phoenix Program?
“That’s him,” Neren told them, “Daemon’s Guard?” The Daemon’s Guard were Waffen SS soldiers who had joined the French Foreign Legion after World War II to fight the Viet Minh, in what was then Indochina. They had allegedly hung around to work as mercenaries for the CIA’s Phoenix Program during America’s involvement in Vietnam.
“Who else was there?” Uathach asked.
◊ ◊ ◊
“Indigenous fauna?” Emmanuel Dabrezil asked. Supposedly an ex-member of the elite Red Hourglasses, the Caribbean States’ marines’ special operations force. Their name a reference to the flags flown by some of the pirate ships that had helped build the free state. The massively built Haitian was their team’s heavy hitter. He carried the 7.62mm version of the Mk3 Minimi, and a 40mm Milkor Multiple Grenade Launcher, as well as his sidearm. It worried Neren that their mysterious employer thought that such firepower was required, particular as both James and herself were capable of wielding gods-given magic. The huge two-handed sledgehammer-like maul that Dabrezil carried across his back was almost certainly a loan from their employer. Neren had caught a glimpse of the hammer’s heavy head. It was inscribed with the complex symbols and diagrams of Hermetic high magic favoured by the followers of Hermes and Thoth.
“Bears, Wendigo, Akhlut packs?” He left their greatest fear unspoken.
Delving into the ruins of ancient civilisations like Atlantis, Tír na nÓg, Sumer, and the rest, had been a profitable if potentially lethal undertaking for the adventurous throughout history. By the early 21st century, however, it was thought that the vast majority of the treasures that remained were now languishing in museums, laboratories, private collections and state armouries. There were perhaps a few left in the crushing depths of the ocean, jealously guarded by the gods and goddesses of the sea and their monstrous offspring, but other than that the world had finally been as thoroughly explored by it’s modern inhabitants as it had been by the Atlanteans and their ilk. It was clear from the team’s skill-set, however, that their employer felt she had found some hitherto un-looted outpost of an ancient empire. The problem was that, up here on the icecap, that suggested Thule—an ancient dragon kingdom. The dragons may be long gone, but the pollution of their blood still left its mark even so many thousands of years later.
“You’re not facing dracoforms.” Their employer spoke quietly but her voice carried over the Chinook’s engines. It may have been another glamour effect, but something about her low voice made Neren really want to pay attention. She was aware of James and Dabrezil heaving a sigh of relief at the news. “Arrangements have been made. You will be untroubled by the beasts and spirits of the north.”
Neren’s head whipped around to stare at the back of their employer’s hooded head. The gods of wind, ice and the cold, cold sea that ruled the frozen wasteland at the top of the world were notoriously difficult to negotiate with, unless you were of their people. She could only wonder at the sacrifice that would have had to be made to achieve this. Without the problems of indigenous fauna, the three biggest challenges inherent in any ancient ruin, those that could stand the rigours of age, were traps and the automata powered by the magics of the artifice gods (the reasons for James’s presence), and of course the undead. This last was why Neren, a necromancer in the favour of Arawn, the god of death, was there.
The Chinook dipped down towards the ice.
◊ ◊ ◊
“When did you realise that you were dealing with an Atlantean ruin?” Uathach asked.
“When we saw the adamantium,” Neren told the mistress of Dun Scatha as she leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms.
McMasters frowned. Neren could understand why. She had used a significant amount of Scotland’s supply of the ultra rare metal during the mission.
“How much adamantium?” he asked.
“All of it, I think.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Neren was forced to reassess what she knew about cold as the rear cargo doors of the Chinook lowered and the wind blew flurries of recently fallen snow into the interior of the cargo helicopter. You haven’t felt cold until you felt Arctic windshear, she decided. She rolled her ski mask down, readied her HK417 Assaulter carbine, and followed their robed employer out into the rotor wash and windblown snow with the other three members of the team.
They were on a flat plane of ice. There was little in the way of pressure ridges and she couldn’t see any polynyas from where she stood. The snow crunching under her boots lay on top of thick, ancient ice.
The rotors were cycling down behind them but it did little to reduce the cold. Somewhat uncharitably, Neren wondered why their mysterious employer hadn’t negotiated with the spirits of the howling, biting wind.
“I want a perimeter, now!” Clausewitz snapped.
Neren gritted her teeth. She’d spent too much time with special operations units for this style of leadership, but she moved to obey.
“Wait.” Their employer’s soft voice carried over the scream of the wind. She turned to face the four of them. “You’re all greedy people.” It wasn’t a great start to a pep talk but Neren decided to keep her thoughts to herself. “You will see items worth a fortune. We have a paid you a great deal of money so you will ignore all that you see and only recover the item stipulated. If you take anything else I will know and you will not be paid, is that clear?” she asked.
Neren nodded, she just wanted to get on with the job. She saw Dabrezil nod as well.
“Is this why we can’t carry blades?” James asked. It had been the oddest stipulation of the job. Guns were fine, even grenade launchers, but no blades. Neren felt naked without the Sisters, her gods-blessed karambits. The two telescoping jitte just weren’t a good substitute.
Shadow swarmed around their employer’s face as she turned towards James.
“It is connected,” she finally said. She gave a long, thin sack made of thick leather to the nervous-looking dwarf. Neren may have been a wielder of magic but she didn’t recognise the symbols inscribed on the sack. “Put it in there when you find it.”
Neren was about to ask for more details on ‘it’, the information on this job had been a bit vague, but James asked a better question.
“Are we dealing with something anathemic?”
Anathemas were corrupting daemon lords and twisted alien gods, like Crom Cruach. Entities that were more than evil. They were enemies of life and existence itself.
“No,” their employer told them. Neren hadn’t liked the moment’s hesitation before she had answered. James had picked up on it as well. He glanced over at her.
◊ ◊ ◊
“I mean I felt it. It was evil, no doubt, but I don’t think it was anathemic…”
Uathach and McMasters were just watching her.
“Tell me, were you possessed when you…” McMasters asked.
Neren shook her head.
“Not when I made the decision. By that point it was clear what he was.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Neren, James, and Dabrezil covered three-hundred-and-sixty degrees of frozen nothing with their weapons, letting Clausewitz enjoy his need to be in control. The elven mercenary was standing a little way behind their employer. Neren glanced her way. She had both arms outstretched, the gnarled oaken staff held in her left hand. Neren caught snatches of an incantation in a beautiful language that she struggled to identify. It sounded not unlike Gaelic. The screaming wind seemed to be trying to hide the chanted words from her. Then a moment’s panic as the ice began to violently shake beneath her. Something exploded through the ice with sufficient force to knock Neren from her feet. Snow and shards of ice hit her stab-proof body armour and tore at her fatigues. Something cold tore through her ski mask and made a red line in her cheek, cutting open a pointed ear. Neren forced herself up onto a knee. The air was still full of snow and stinging particles of ice. She swore as she realised her goggles were cracked. She could make out the others as little more than shadows seen in a momentary blizzard. Their employer was still stood, arms outstretched, seemingly untouched by the force of the explosion.
As the ice and snow startled to settle again, Neren got a look at the object that had thrust itself up from the frozen depths and into the Arctic air. Her cold breath caught in her throat. It was a square frustum, a sort of flat-topped pyramid, about the height and half the length of a double-decker bus, and made of stone. The recessed double doors, however, were made of black metal. Neren wasn’t sure if the ornate markings on the doors were supposed to be symbols in some ancient language, or the surface sign of the doors’ internal workings. One thing was for sure-
“It’s Atlantean…” James managed, his voice filled with awe.
The black metal was adamantium, the rarest and most precious metal on Earth—the secret of how to create and work it had been lost with the fall of Atlantis. This structure was the single most valuable thing that Neren had ever seen. It was priceless.
“Remember what I told you,” their employer told them.
“You’re up,” Neren said to James.
♦ ♦ ♦
Neren didn’t pretend to understand what James was doing. He had his ruggedized laptop lying on the snow next to him, seemingly deciphering the symbols on the black metal. He had examined the doors and the structures with all sorts of instruments and lenses; some mundane, some magical devices of his own creation. She had seen him praying, whether to Goibniu or Wayland, she didn’t really care. His sacrifices to the gods had been finely wrought items he’d lovingly crafted with his own hands. Finally a small circle of metal had rolled away to reveal a hole in the left hand door. The hole was just large enough for someone to slide their forearm into. James gestured towards it.
“Any takers?” he asked.
“Just get on with it!” Clausewitz snapped.
Neren exchanged a smile with Dabrezil.
James reached down into his pack and pulled out an ornate wooden box about the size of a jewellery box. He had to heat the clasp as it had frozen shut, but he managed to get the box open. Lying on the red velvet interior was a severed, desiccated, six fingered hand.
“Need something a little more impressive than a skeleton key.” Neren wasn’t sure if James was talking to the rest of them or just himself. He looked up. “The hand of glory!” he said almost proudly. “The left hand of a hung thief.”
The hand animated and climbed out of the box, scuttling across the snow in a way that made Neren’s skin crawl.
“Bit necromantic for you, isn’t it?” Neren asked.
“Whatever works,” James said, shrugging.
The hand clambered up the adamantium doors and into the hole. The circle of metal slid closed behind the hand like a guillotine. Anyone putting their forearm in there would have lost it. James was packing his gear up. Their robed employer, seemingly impervious to the cold, was watching him intently.
“Is that it?” Clausewitz asked.
James just smiled.
“I asked you a question,” the elven mercenary demanded.
“Obviously not,” their employer told him, just as Neren had opened her mouth to say something similar.
There was a series of clicks from inside the doors, the grinding noise of ancient workings made from a metal that never eroded.
“Stand well back,” James warned them, grabbing the last of his equipment and scurrying away.
The rest of them moved away from the door as well. Neren and Clausewitz covered the structure, whilst Dabrezil watched their backs.
The adamantium doors swung open. Even as far back as they were, they couldn’t escape the stench as stale air escaped the structure.
“Hermetically sealed?” Neren asked James.
“Yes,” the dwarf told her as he slung his pack and readied his shotgun. “You smell that?”
She did. Something had died down there.
“You’re up,” Clausewitz told her.
♦ ♦ ♦
They had given enough time for the stale, dead air inside the structure to swap out with the freezing, but more breathable, air of the Arctic, and then thrown burning flares down the steps that sunk away from the now open doors.
The beams of weapon-attached flashlights stabbed down into the murk of the unlit chamber. It was roughly rectangular in shape and consisted of two terraces leading down into an open area. In the open area was another flat-topped pyramid-like structure, almost identical to the first.
Neren started to concentrate.
“Well?” Clausewitz demanded, breaking her concentration.
“Dude,” James said to the elf, “any working takes effort, concentration and a little time, chill.”
“You will refer to me as Herr Hauptman or, if you must, Captain,” he told the dwarf.
“Alright, we get you’re in charge,” Neren said, “Captain,” she added as an afterthought. “But you need to let us do our job.”
“Movement,” Dabrezil said. Neren looked back down into the chamber, the flares illuminating it with a red, flickering, hellish glow.
“Where?” Neren asked.
“Your two o’clock, far corner,” the big Haitian told her. Neren shifted her weapon, the flashlight mounted on the HK417’s pickatinny mounting rail brightening the shadows in a dark corner. She caught a glimpse of a white-clad figure running from the light, making for the cover provided by the flat-topped pyramidal structure of the next gate. She could feel the others tense nearby. She knew it had to be undead. From the tiny glimpse she got of the figure, however, it hadn’t looked as though it was some pre-historical tomb guardian. She’d seen enough of the figure’s winter uniform to recognise the Hagall rune insignia.
“Zonbi,” Dabrezil said quietly, matter-of-fact.
“Sixth SS Mountain Division,” Neren said out loud. Though she had a feeling that Clausewitz already knew this.
“You’re the necromancer, lay them to rest,” the elven mercenary told her.
The problem was that she didn’t want them to rest.
♦ ♦ ♦
Neren had fired a 40mm fragmentation grenade down into the chamber. Dabrezil had flung a hand grenade down as well, just for good measure. Then they had gone in to clean up, carbine bucking each time she caught one of the undead in the beam of her flashlight.
She had been reloading her carbine when one of the undead SS soldiers had managed to make it past Dabrezil. The first blow from the bayonet on the end of the Mauser had driven her down into the stone steps. The dried flesh on the dead Waffen SS soldier’s face tore as it stretched its mouth open in a silent scream. This was why she had worn stab-proof body armour instead of bullet resistant. The undead had managed a few shots before their weapons had malfunctioned. Hermetically sealed or not, it seemed that weapons maintenance hadn’t been the walking corpses’ main priority these seventy-plus years.
The second bayonet thrust knocked the wind out of her. The undead soldier was raising the Mauser like a spear, ready to ram it down again. Behind the walking corpse the muzzle flash from Dabrezil’s Minimi lit up the chamber as the huge Haitian cut down the undead charging towards him. A shaking James had his shotgun levelled at the walking corpse attacking Neren. He was repeatedly pulling the trigger, but nothing was happening.
“The mechanism’s frozen, use the pump!” Neren managed to shout and rolled to one side. She rolled back having drawn one of her twin Wilson .45s from its holster high on her load-bearing vest. She shot the undead twice in the chest, the angle sharp enough to miss Dabrezil, who was further down the steps. Puffs of dried flesh and bone exploded out of the walking corpse’s back. It staggered away a few steps but recovered immediately and bore down on Neren again. She shifted aim and squeezed the trigger again and again, each bullet eating away at the dead Nazi’s skull until the .45 was empty. She kicked up at the undead knocking it off the steps. Letting the slide on her pistol click forward, she holstered the empty pistol and grabbed the shotgun from James. The dwarf had left the weapon too long in the snow and the semi-automatic feed mechanism had frozen.
She worked the pump action, chambering a shell, and moved down the steps level with Dabrezil. One of the undead was charging the big Haitian, an odd-looking black-bladed knife in its hand. Dabrezil’s Minimi ran dry. He let the weapon drop on its sling as he drew his sidearm, the undead almost on him. Neren fired the shotgun, felt the somehow comforting recoil thump into her shoulder, the top half of the knife-wielding SS soldier’s skull disintegrated. She worked the pump and fired again, and again until the weapon was empty. Dabrezil was next to her, making careful headshots with his sidearm. Holding the shotgun in her left hand, Neren drew the other Wilson .45 from the drop holster on her right thigh, but there were no more undead left standing.
“Wow, did we just fight the last battle of World War II?” she asked. Then, passing the shotgun back to James, “Don’t leave it lying in the snow.”
The dwarf nodded and started reloading the shotgun. Neren holstered her unfired .45, drew it’s empty twin, reloaded that and then reloaded her HK417, sliding another 40mm fragmentation grenade into the under-barrel grenade launcher. Dabrezil waited until she was finished and had started covering the group before reloading and holstering his sidearm. The big Haitian then started reloading the belt-fed Minimi.
“I gave you a direct order,” Clausewitz said from the top of the stairs. He hadn’t even fired a shot. Neren glanced back up at the elven mercenary. He was a shadow against the bleak Arctic sky.
“No problem with you being in charge Herr Hauptman,” Neren told him, though in truth she was more used to operating alone. “But show us something. So far everyone has contributed but you.”
Dabrezil finished reloading the Minimi and brought the weapon up to his shoulder. Neren used hand signals to communicate that the two of them were going to search the chamber. Dabrezil just nodded.
“This dwarf is a disgrace,” Clausewitz said pointing at James who was still trying to fumble shotgun shells into the Benelli M4.
“Maybe you should try and get the next door open. James could always make you a new arm.”
James shot her a look. She knew she had gone too far but she’d never been very good at this undercover shit.
◊ ◊ ◊
“Are you saying Clausewitz was incompetent?” Uathach asked. Neren could tell by the other woman’s tone that she didn’t quite believe this.
“Look, he may have been hot-shit in Vietnam, maybe even World War II, but these skills are perishable. For all I know, he was sat on some beach in South America for the last forty years living off the money the Phoenix Program paid him. He was too used to getting his own way. Old-school leadership, he hadn’t moved with the times.”
Uathach continued to look unconvinced.
◊ ◊ ◊
Neren told James to watch their back but not shoot unless something was right on top of him. She didn’t fancy taking a shotgun blast to the chest because the dwarf was nervous. She didn’t bother with Clausewitz. Until he proved himself, he was just so much dead weight as far as she was concerned.
Neren and Dabrezil took a slow and methodical tour of the chamber they were in. They lit more flares and searched every nook and cranny by flashlight, taking it in turns to cover each other. There were a few of the undead who had survived the initial onslaught. They were badly damaged but still moving. Dabrezil put them out of their misery with his hammer. As he swung the maul Neren, saw sparks fly around the head. The result of the gods-given magic infused into the weapon.
Finally they made their way back to the steps and announced the chamber was clear. James slung his shotgun and removed a set of thick, collapsible titanium rods from his pack. He extended them and used them to wedge open the doors.
“Are they strong enough?” Dabrezil asked.
“Probably not,” James told him as he rushed past making his way towards the flat topped, four-sided stone structure in the centre of the chamber. Neren was pretty sure that the weight of the adamantium would crush the titanium unless the mechanism that powered the doors was particularly weak. It couldn’t hurt to have the frame in place, however. It was pretty much standard operating procedure for such operations.
Clausewitz had made his way down the stairs and was crouched down next to the undead that had been wielding the strange black bladed knife. The corpse was missing the top of it’s head. Clausewitz was reaching for the black bladed knife.
“Wait!” Neren shouted.
Clausewitz froze, apparently despite himself, and then turned angrily to face Neren.
“Do not give me orders.”
Neren moved over to the knife and shone her flashlight on it. It had an adamantium blade. She wasn’t an expert but she was pretty sure it was of Atlantean design. There were still a few such blades in the Ravens’ armoury. They were sharp as razors, unbreakable, never lost their edge. She couldn’t be sure but she thought she saw the faintest sparks of magic playing along the blade.
“The boss lady told us to leave it alone,” Neren reminded him.
“That blade is worth a fortune,” Clausewitz said quietly, conspiratorially,
Neren kicked it away from him. He glared at her.
“I think we’re dealing with some pretty serious magic here,” she told him, trying to sound as respectful as possible. It rang false in her own ears. “What have we got here?” Neren asked, shining her light over the undead that had been wielding the adamantium blade. She did this in part to forestall a tantrum from Clausewitz, but the corpse was wearing a different insignia from the rest of the dead SS soldiers.
Clausewitz straightened up still glaring at her but he seemed to think the better of another confrontation.
“He’s SD,” Clausewitz told her, “Security service, an officer, probably a Hexenkartothek.”
Neren guessed that alive, the SD officer had been a priest, most likely of one of the Æsir gods and as capable as herself, or James, in wielding magic. He would have come here looking for the secrets of Atlantis, for more magical might to add to the Third Reich’s then already not-inconsiderable arsenal.
Dabrezil joined them, though he had his back to them both keeping watch on the rest of the chamber. James, illuminated by the light of his laptop, was studying the door in the new adamantium structure.
“You see the wounds on the zonbis?” Dabrezil asked.
“We messed them up pretty badly,” Neren pointed out. They had dropped a lot of 21st century ordinance on the 20th century walking corpses. Dabrezil was nodding in agreement.
“True, but all our wounds were dry. Even old blood shows up on snow smocks though. I think they fought each other. I checked on a couple of the bodies we didn’t mess up too badly. Knife wounds sharp enough to cut through flesh and bone.”
“Spare me your amateur CSI,” Clausewitz told the Haitian. Dabrezil glanced at Clausewitz, and then looked away smiling. This made the elven mercenary bristle.
“One of them is missing an arm,” James called from over by the door. “I don’t think it was you guys. I think he must have missed the trap and set it off.”
“Or he was ordered to put his hand in anyway,” Neren suggested.
“And can’t you feel that?” Dabrezil asked Neren directly. “It feels like death in here.”
She was about to ask him what he was talking about but now that she had a moment, now that the adrenaline surge was gone and she wasn’t distracted babysitting Clausewitz, she did feel something. The Haitian was right. She was ever so slightly out of breath, like she was ageing as she stood there. No, not ageing—rotting.
“It’s a minor necromantic effect,” James told them.
“They kill each other-” Dabrezil started.
“Or he kills them,” Neren said nodding down at the Hexenkartothek officer, “With his shiny new knife-“
“And the magics inscribed in the adamantium raise them as aptrgangr,” James finished. It was an Old Norse word that meant ‘again-walker’. The dwarf sounded calmer now that he was working on getting the next door open.
Neren was a little irritated with herself. If she hadn’t been babysitting Clausewitz she would have been able to work this out herself.
“Less speculation, more working. Is it trapped?” Clausewitz asked. He was on the third step of the stairs, standing opposite the doors in the second, identical frustum structure.
“Neren?” James asked. He was on one knee by the door, peering through his complicated set of lenses. He had an equally complicated-looking clockwork device in one hand. The device was spinning and whirring as James pressed it into the concealed lock.
“Yes, James?” Neren replied.
“Could you move Herr Captain for me?” James let go of the clockwork device, its spinning chambers working within the adamantium doors’ circular lock mechanism. James moved to the side of the doors, quickly, and put his back against the stone. Neren grabbed Clausewitz and dragged him unceremoniously off the step. There were clicking noises and holes appeared in the adamantium doors. Neren crouched, head down. Out of the corner of her eye she saw blurred shapes flying through the frigid air, heard and felt their passage. Then the stairs exploded as the projectiles flew into them, powdering the stone. She felt fragments bouncing off her as the air filled with stone dust, making her cough.
When the dust cloud had subsided enough, Neren went looking for one of the projectiles. What she found was something roughly the shape of a crossbow bolt but made out of solid adamantium. It was embedded deep in the stone. She shook her head, somehow appalled at the reckless wealth on show here. She was thrown into shadow as Dabrezil moved over to her. Clausewitz had brushed himself down and moved to stand over James, watching as the dwarf jimmied open the second set of doors. Neren had been pleasantly surprised that the elven mercenary hadn’t spat his dummy after the trap had been triggered.
“He may be an asshole,” Dabrezil said, glancing over at Clausewitz, “but he’s right, there’s a hell of a lot of money just lying around here.” He nodded down at the adamantium bolt. Neren straightened up and then turned to Dabrezil. She had to crane her neck to look up at him.
“This seem right to you?” she asked, gesturing around. She didn’t wait for an answer. “There’s some serious magic here. Let me ask you something. Do you think we’re still under the ice?” Dabrezil just stared at her. “I don’t know for sure, but I suspect if I checked with James he’d concur.” She pointed up at the wedged open doors that provided a frame of the lightening Arctic sky. “I think that was a gateway. I think that we’re somewhere else.”
Dabrezil stared at her. Then he spat, made a sign with his hand and muttered something in patois that sounded suspiciously like a protective incantation. Neren was pretty sure it was just a prayer, however. She didn’t think that the big Haitian hadn’t been blessed by his gods to wield their magic.
“Let’s just leave well enough alone,” Neren suggested.
The sound of the Arctic air being sucked through the newly opened second set of doors sounded like a death rattle to Neren.
“Uh, guys?” James said. Neren and Dabrezil turned to see James and Clausewitz both pointing their weapons downwards through the second set of adamantium doors. A warm flickering light was emanating from within the second chamber. Neren and the Dabrezil moved to join them.
Using the edge of the doorway as cover, Neren glanced down into the next chamber. It was a copy of the chamber they stood in—two terraces, steps running down to a ground level, and then yet another pyramidal frustum structure. The only difference was there were torches in freestanding sconces illuminating the adamantium doors. This did, however, mean that the part of the chamber behind the gatehouse was shrouded in darkness.
There was something about the darkness that didn’t seem right. Too thick, somehow, too total.
Neren shone her flashlight into the darkened area. It seemed to eat the light. She exchanged a look with James. The dwarf removed a flare from a pouch on his load-bearing vest and lit it. He flung the flare high over the gatehouse. The flare didn’t so much go out as have the flame sucked out of it, into the darkness.
“There’s a good reason our employer’s not down here with us, isn’t there?” James muttered. “What do you think?” he asked Neren.
“It’s either a surprisingly powerful glamour,” she told James, “or more worrying, some kind of entropic effect.”
“Check?” the dwarf asked.
Once again, Neren closed here eyes and started to concentrate. She began forming a prayer, a verbal offering, a negotiation with Arawn.
“Get down there,” Clausewitz snapped.
“Gods!” Neren cursed. Unable to concentrate, she decided that she may as well help cover the chamber and brought the butt of the HK417 up to her shoulder. “Do you get that James and I are here because of our ability to wield magic-?” Neren started.
“And we’ve seen little from you but insolence and cowardice!” Clausewitz snapped.
“That’s it, he’s opening the next door himself,” James said in Gaelic.
“Speak English!” Clausewitz snapped.
“Cover us from up here,” Neren told the elf. “Try not to shoot us in the back.” Then she signalled for Dabrezil and James to make their way down the steps. Neren and the big Haitian moved first, James following a little way behind. Neren moved to the left corner of the gatehouse, Dabrezil to the right. James moved to the door mechanism.
Neren put her back to the cool adamantium and signalled Clausewitz to watch her corner as she crouched down and began to compose her request to her distant patron god. Again she was interrupted, this time by a three round burst from Clausewitz, then Dabrezil was firing. Carbine at the ready, Neren risked a glance around the corner. The darkness was receding like draining liquid, but she still couldn’t see what the elf or the Haitian were firing at.
Her hair stood on end, the air ionised, a neon blue/white glow coming from above the gatehouse. Lightning arced out overhead. Neren glanced back, but Clausewitz was nowhere to be seen. She looked up. Her eyes widened. Just for a moment a primitive, instinctual fear threatened to overwhelm her. It was a skull. A huge reptilian skull connected to the body of a vast skeletal lizard. She’d seen remains like this in museums. Except the ones in the museum hadn’t been moving, their ribcages hadn’t contained a flickering sphere of electricity. One skeletal foot gripped the top of the flat-topped pyramid gatehouse. Skeletal wings outstretched, tatters of patagium hanging from the thin bat-like bone structure. Their employer had said no dracoforms. She had neglected to tell them that whomever had built this tomb had somehow slain an Atlantean storm dragon and left its animated skeleton in here.
It was actually Clausewitz who broke her from her dragon fear. She heard the pop of a grenade launcher firing. She put her back against the gatehouse as the 40mm fragmentation grenade exploded. The chamber trapped the over pressure, she felt it batter her body but the stone of the gatehouse protected her from the shrapnel. She went momentarily deaf. Clausewitz had disappeared from the top of the stairs.
She saw the tip of the glaive first. Then a human skeleton walked around the corner, the remnants of armour hanging off its bones. This time Neren didn’t hesitate. She put two rounds into it centre mass. The bullets just chipped bone. She heard Dabrezil laying down some serious fire behind her. The glaive was a long pole with a sword-like adamantium blade on the end of it. The skeletal warrior started its back swing. Neren shifted her aim and fired twice more, powdering its skull, and then threw herself backwards as the now faceless skeleton swung its glaive at her. The black blade swept over her, narrowly missing her face. She saw tracers fly overhead as Clausewitz finally started to lay down fire. Neren moved her hand forward and fired the under-barrel grenade launcher. The grenade burst through the skeletons rib cage and lodged in its spine, sending it flying backwards into the air. Neren covered her face with her arms and curled up as the 40mm fragmentation grenade exploded. The force of the blast knocked the wind from her. The air was suddenly full of bone fragments and shrapnel. She cried out as the fragments hit her stab-proof vest and tore into her arm and legs. The skeleton’s shoulders, part of its rib cage, and one and a half of its arms were trying to crawl towards her. Lightning arced out overhead again and super-heated stone exploded. Neren pushed herself against the gatehouse, tried to make herself as small a target as possible.
James was standing over her, firing his shotgun repeatedly at another humanoid skeletal figure, this one with a reptilian head, some kind of archaic pistol in one hand, a staff in the other. The lizard-headed skeleton staggered back.
Dabrezil was at the other corner of the gatehouse firing the Mikor MGL, it’s huge, six chambered revolver mechanism rotating after each shot, firing 40mm high explosive grenades at the skeletal dragon. Despite the firepower Neren knew she was their best shot. She offered Arawn her blood, her pain, her breath. She offered the god of death the chance to pull her that bit closer to Annwn, his realm. She felt his cold, sensual fingers around her heart, massaging it slower and slower. She felt the Arctic cold seep into her very essence and welcomed it. The blood from her wounds was red smoke, her skin growing pale like a corpse, eyes darkening as though from a haemorrhage as body and magic played with her own death.
James flicked open an extending morning star, head and haft inscribed with runes and brought it down into the head of another human skeleton.
Neren was thrown into shadow as the crumbling skull of the skeletal dragon looked down on her, its claws gripping the top of the gatehouse. Lightening playing around its spine, its teeth. It opened its mouth. Neren inhaled the red blood-smoke leaking from her wounds like volcanic vents. Blood was life, her life, and she breathed it out as entropy, encouraging time to take its course, to reassert itself, and suddenly the air was filled with a rain of bone dust as the skeletons just crumbled away. Her eyelids flickered as cold became a welcoming comfort and her heart slowed and then stopped.
♦ ♦ ♦
Neren sat bolt upright screaming. James scrambled back from her, falling onto his arse. Wide-eyed, Neren looked down at the epinephrine injector sticking out of her chest.
“Ow…” she managed weakly. She was shaking with the cold as she sought to do up her winter fatigues and parka again. “How long?” she asked James.
“Moments,” the dwarf told her, “but you’re pushing it too hard.”
Clausewitz and Dabrezil were both nearby. Clausewitz covered as the big Haitian reloaded the Mikor with high-explosive-dual-purpose rounds designed to beat armour.
“We’re up against some pretty serious magic here,” Neren told James. She left out that Necromancy was all about flirting with the grave. She also left out that this was the most alive she’d felt in a long time. After all, she’d just fought a dragon! Though admittedly an already dead one. James was looking at her the way that people who didn’t practice death magic looked at those who did when confronted with a reminder of their fragile mortality. Neren nodded towards the next set of doors. James watched her for a few moments more and then nodded as well.
Neren loaded an HEDP grenade into her own grenade launcher. It made sense. They’d seen a lot of undead. Finding some kind of automaton powered by the magics of an artificer god made sense given the sealed nature of the tomb. More worrying was the idea of some ancient and sleeping guardian. The skeletal dragon had made her nervous. Dragons belonged in another, more ancient time. The presence of one here, even a vastly weakened skeletal one, felt like a violation of the modern age somehow. That didn’t, however, stop Neren from pocketing some of the bone dust. Unliving or not, powdered dragon bone would make a powerful offering to Arawn for any death magic.
Neren felt eyes on her. She looked up to find Clausewitz watching her, the slightest trace of a smile on his thin lips.
“Shite,” James pronounced.
“What?” Clausewitz asked. He’d been strangely quiet, not ordering people around. Neren hoped it was because he’d learned his lesson, though she knew from bitter experience that elves could be very resistant to learning new things.
“Well I can open the door,” James said.
“But?” Neren asked.
James pointed between the two doors.
“Basically there’s a cavity behind the adamantium, the cavity contains some kind of glass or crystal cylinder-“
“You open the doors and it breaks the cylinder,” Neren said. James was nodding.
“What’s in the cylinder?” Dabrezil asked from his watch position on the lower stone tier.
“Best guess, some kind of alchemical poisonous gas,” James told them.
“Guess?” Clausewitz asked.
James rolled his eyes.
“By guess I mean qualitative analysis of the information we have on the Atlantean ruins that have already been looted,” James told the elf.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Neren added.
“So diffuse the trap,” Clausewitz told the dwarf, “Isn’t that what you’re here for?”
James was already shaking his head.
“Maybe if I had a million-pound adamantium drill-bit…”
“There’s adamantium all around you.” Clausewitz let a little bit of cold anger creep into his voice.
“None of which are a delicate enough tool for the job, and I doubt even Dabrezil is strong enough to force a blade through these doors.” James tapped the doors making Neren wince a little. Dabrezil was chuckling to himself. “Besides, I don’t have a pump with the facility to make an airtight seal.”
“So?” Neren asked.
“We set off the trap,” James said, “and we either evacuate and give the vapour time to clear, or we risk using gas masks.”
“Will gas masks be enough?” Dabrezil asked. Neren could hear the unease in his voice. No soldier liked the idea of chemical warfare.
“For all their technological sophistication, the Atlanteans weren’t producing modern nerve gas. The vector is inhalation. Best guess… sorry, qualitative analysis of the available data, suggests that gas masks should protect us?”
“Should?” Neren asked.
“This is one of their more sophisticated ruins… tombs… whatever the fuck this place is.”
Neren was beginning to have her suspicions of what this place was for.
“Gas masks on, open it,” Clausewitz ordered.
Dabrezil and James looked at Neren. Finally she nodded. She felt Clausewitz staring at her but didn’t look his way.
♦ ♦ ♦
In many ways opening the doors was something of an anti-climax. Witnessed from inside the claustrophobia of a gas mask, the sound of the alchemical cylinder breaking sounded like the delicate tinkle of china smashing. The gas was invisible. It seemed somehow absurd that the air beyond the plastic of the protective mask had suddenly become lethal. Even so, Neren was very aware of the sound of her own breath within the mask. Then her skin started to itch. She had no idea if it was psychosomatic or not, but now she was afraid. Necromancy, by its very nature, forced its wielders to dance on the edge but it was her will against the magic. Here she was at the mercy of this invisible killer born of ancient technology and the modern technology that would keep her alive. It would also significantly hinder her ability to wield her god’s given magic. Neren glanced back up the steps, through both sets of wedged open doors she could make out the figure of their employer standing in the first doorway, silhouetted against the sky. Neren felt a gentle wind tugging at her fatigues blowing up the steps towards the open air. Their employer had disappeared from view. Neren turned back to the open door. Beyond was another unnatural, sucking darkness.
Get a grip, she told herself.
Clausewitz marched forwards, shining the flashlight affixed to the mounting rail on his carbine down into the darkness.
“There’s no pyramid,” he told them over a very crackly, interference-ridden voicecom. Neren moved forward and shone her own light down into the new chamber. As far as she could tell, it was identical to the one they now stood in and the one previous, with the exception of the lack of another flat-topped pyramid gatehouse. The illumination from the flashlights didn’t seem to be nearly as effective as they should have been. Even more than the previous chamber, it was as though the darkness was eating away at the electric light. James joined them at the top of the new set of stairs. Dabrezil was watching their back. The dwarf lit a flare and threw it down into the living darkness. Neren did the same. Neither flare burned as brightly as they should have. Clausewitz flicked the night vision goggles mounted on his helmet down over the Perspex eyepieces. Neren sighed and did the same. She hated using NVGs. Thanks to her elven heritage she could see very well at night and the goggles significantly hindered her peripheral vision, but sometimes she needed a little help. Dwarves were similarly able to see well in darkness but James was flipping his NVGs down as well. Through the goggles’ light amplification the flares should have been blinding. They weren’t, but they provided just enough light to better make out the chamber below.
“Well it’s a classic,” James voice came through the static on their masks voicecoms.
“It surely is,” Neren said grinning to herself.
In the flickering green of the light amplified flares Neren could make out a complex magic circle that had been carved into the flat stone floor. In the centre of that circle, wrapped in inscribed adamantium chains, was a sheathed sword.
In its sheath the sword looked plain enough. A simple leather wrapped hilt, the leather, and the wooden furniture under the leather, having inexplicably not rotted away. The hilt was long enough for the blade to be held comfortably in both hands but Neren suspected it was a hand-and-half, or bastard sword. The sheathed blade looked to be about four feet or so long, and reasonably slender, which made sense if it was made out of a metal as strong as adamantium.
Clausewitz made his way down into the chamber.
“Clausewitz, wait!” Neren said over the voicecom, but she was answered in static. “Wedge the doors,” she told James. The dwarf nodded. “Dabrezil stay up here, cover us.” The big Haitian nodded. Neren moved down the steps after Clausewitz, switching the carbine’s laser designator to infrared as she did so. She checked as much of the chamber around her as she could in the crawling darkness that encroached on their various light sources. She caught up with Clausewitz on the edge of the circle surrounding the stone. She glanced at the symbols. She was no expert but she was pretty sure it was Atlantean high magic. She could feel a palpable force in the air from the circle’s magic. She grabbed Clausewitz and spun him around.
“What the fuck?” she demanded over the voicecom. This time the returning static almost deafened her. She half convinced herself that she could hear a voice whispering amongst the static. She switched the voicecom off. Clausewitz was just staring at her through his NVGs. There was a faint glow coming from behind the lenses, illuminating the Perspex. Something about the elven mercenary’s eyes didn’t look right, but Neren put this down to seeing them through the plastic of the gasmask. She gestured for Clausewitz to keep watch in one direction, whilst she watched the other. He stared at her for a few more moments and then did as she had asked.
Arsehole, Neren thought. She gestured for James to come down the steps and join them now that he’d wedged the doors open, and for Dabrezil to continue covering them from the doorway overlooking the chamber. James came down the stone steps. It was clear from his body language that he was far from happy with the situation. He kneeled down next to the circle and opened up his ruggedized laptop—the screen was a flickering, distorted mess. James looked up at her. This was bad news. They had been relying on the computer to decipher the symbols in the protective circle. Then, suddenly the screen cleared. James looked up at her again, shaking his head. Neren found her attention drawn to the sword in chains. Now that she had a moment to think about it was obvious what this place was. It was a dungeon. A prison for this sword.
James was waving his hand around trying to get her attention. He pointed into the air over the sword. It took a moment for Neren to work out what he was trying to communicate. Dabrezil was using the infrared designator on his Minimi as he covered the area. The IR beam, visible in Neren’s NVGs, seemed to bend downwards where it passed over the sword. Then Neren felt it as well, an internal tug towards the blade in chains. She didn’t like it but something else was bothering her. The other two chambers had been guarded, admittedly the top chamber had only been guarded by the victims of a necromantic trap. If this sword was the reason for the whole complex then it made sense that this chamber would be guarded as well.
The two flares died as if snuffed out, the flickering light sucked away. They were left with the dull light of the flashlights mounted on their weapons amplified slightly by their NVGs. Neren lit another flare and tossed it into one of the corners on the highest tier. She caught movement, a scuttling.
It’s the darkness playing tricks with your perception, she tried to tell herself.
“I think there’s something in here with us,” she said over the gasmask’s voicecom, only to be greeted with static, though again she couldn’t shake the feeling there was a voice in the static, more distinct this time, words in an alien language. She was playing her flashlight over the area where she had seen the movement. She almost jumped when Clausewitz appeared at her side. Then more movement caught on the edge of Clausewitz’s flashlight. Something was crawling across the roof, insectile movement. She tried the voicecom again, mounting unease bordering on panic. Normally this was the kind of thing that she lived for, but this just wasn’t right. She pulled her helmet off and then the mask, she could hear James shouting at her through his own mask.
“There’s something in here with us!” she cried back. “On the ceiling!”
With the mask off she could hear something like razors scuttling across stone. She was using her flashlight to try and penetrate the murky darkness. In the periphery of her vision she was aware of Dabrezil looking up, and then his sudden panicked movement as he started firing the Minimi. It fell from the ceiling towards the big Haitian, the subdued flickering of the weapon’s muzzle flash illuminating it as if in a strobe light. Neren got a sense of two spinning cylinders, multiple spinning limbs ending in black blades like oversized scalpels. If Dabrezil hadn’t moved then the ancient automaton would have landed on him. Neren was bringing her own weapon up as one of the spinning scalpels cut thorough the barrel of Dabrezil’s Minimi and then severed his arm. Dabrezil staggered back looking at the bleeding stump. Neren had her carbine up but couldn’t risk a shot. Besides, the automaton was made of the all too-familiar black metal. The bullets in the carbine would have little effect on it. Clausewitz started firing his carbine. The rounds sparked off the automaton’s armoured carapace. Dabrezil cried out as he took a ricochet in the leg and collapsed.
“No!” Neren cried and pushed Clausewitz’s weapon down. The elven mercenary hit her in the stomach with the butt of his carbine hard enough to double her over. Then he was marching up the stairs firing at the automaton as it scurried up the wall. There was a pop as Clausewitz fired his grenade launcher and part of the wall exploded, the force of the blast blowing the automaton off the stone. Lumps off masonry hit Dabrezil as he tried to crawl towards the door. Neren was up again drawing the Peacemaker from its holster.
“James!” Neren tried shouting, but Clausewitz was firing his carbine again as the automaton scurried for the darkness in the corner of the chamber off to Neren’s left. His weapon’s magazine ran dry and he dropped it, letting it hang down on its sling as he reached Dabrezil.
“James!” Neren tried again, watching the area where the automaton had disappeared into the darkness. She thumbed the hammer back on the old single action revolver, the act accompanied by a brief electrical display around the hammer. “Get Dabrezil into the next chamber, keep him alive!”
The dwarf grabbed his laptop and charged up the steps, all but throwing the computer into the chamber above before moving to Dabrezil.
Clausewitz had the Haitian’s Mikor now and was scanning the chamber.
Neren grabbed her helmet and raced up the steps to the doorway just as James was dragging an unconscious Dabrezil through it. She put her back to the doorway, flicking her NVGs down. She could see the beam of the IR designator on the Mikor playing across the chamber.
“Anything?” she demanded, but Clausewitz ignored her. It wasn’t the time to discuss his behaviour but she had decided that his face was going to have some quality time with her knuckles if they both survived this.
She was startled as something slid across the stone towards her. She looked down to see Dabrezil’s hammer lucerne lying on the stone next to her boot. Then there was movement in her periphery in the shadows off to her left. She swung round and almost a fired. Almost wasted one of the incredibly expensive bullets but she managed to stop herself. Handguns weren’t the most accurate weapons, and the Peacemaker was far from one of the more accurate handguns. If this was to work then she needed to draw it in. Tactically speaking, Clausewitz and herself were bait.
“You know that grenade launcher’s useless, right?” Neren asked Clausewitz, meaning the Mikor. Even with their armour piercing qualities, the HEDP grenades wouldn’t scratch the automaton’s adamantium body. Though the force of the blasts would kick it around a bit. “You have to trust me, use the grenades to herd it towards us.”
Clausewitz still didn’t answer.
Prick, Neren thought.
The flare she’d lit went out. Neren took one hand off the Peacemaker and awkwardly grabbed a flare out of one of the loops on her load-bearing vest and threw it as far as she could into the shadows on the far left of the chamber. She did the same to the far right with her last flare.
Then Clausewitz fired the Mikor. The grenade exploded in the opposite wall. Neren saw nothing. Clausewitz raised the Mikor and fired into the ceiling. The overpressure battered Neren as stone fragments hit her, one of them opening up the side of her head, another fragment destroying her NVGs. She tore them off. The automaton was spinning on the floor, just in front of the stone circle, presumably blown off the ceiling by the force of the blast. It righted itself on multiple blade legs, bending at the joints as though about to leap. Neren took careful aim. Another pop as Clausewitz fired the Mikor again. The grenade landed just behind the automaton as it leapt. The blast tore Neren off her feet, ripping her helmet off her head. She landed on James on the other side of the doorway in the second chamber. The blast had turned the automaton’s jumping spider-like leap into a flailing tumble. It bounced off the top of the doorway and then scuttled towards Neren, who suddenly realised that her hand was empty. James was struggling underneath her.
The automaton was almost on top of her now, four of its scalpel-tipped limbs raised to strike like a praying mantis. Neren saw the Peacemaker lying on the stone. She rolled off James and made a grab for it. Adamantium blades stabbed down, the blades so sharp that Neren barely felt one slide into the meat of her left leg. Her finger wrapped around the Peacemaker’s grip. She could hear James screaming, more terror than pain. She barely aimed, squeezing the trigger at near point blank range. The tongue of flame lit up the spinning shadow looming over her. The adamantium bullet hit the automaton, lightning playing over it’s armour. She heard clunking from inside the ancient machine but it didn’t stop.
She realised it was too late, even as she thumbed the hammer back on the single action revolver. Then she caught a glimpse of movement behind the automaton. Clausewitz. It looked like he’d stabbed down into the automaton’s body. The machine paused, just for a moment, as it processed the new threat. It was enough. Neren shot again. Then she had the presence of mind to fan the revolver’s hammer, keeping the trigger squeezed as she fired the remaining four rounds in the cylinder. In doing so, she significantly depleted Scotland’s adamantium reserves. Lightning played across the automaton, the result of the Thor-given magic imbued into the old revolver. The automaton juddered and shook, before collapsing onto the stone, blades still spinning in its violent death throes. Neren rolled off James. She could see the haft of Dabrezil’s hammer lucerne on the stone floor. She reached for it, an adamantium blade almost took her hand off at the wrist. Her fingers gripped the leather wrapped haft. She dragged it towards her, causing sparks on the stone, trying to move out of the way of the blades. Screaming, her fear manifesting as rage she brought the hammer down on the thrashing automaton again and again, until it lay still.
Neren was gasping for breath, the cold air burning her lungs, staring at the now still and utterly trashed automaton, electrical displays still playing across it’s multi-segmented cylindrical body. Clausewitz stood behind the automaton in the doorway. He had removed his night vision goggles and his eyes looked stranger still. They were a dark mass with little pinpricks of light in them. Light like stars. He held a blade in his hand. Neren was pretty sure it was the same one that the undead SS officer had carried in the first chamber.
“Clausewitz?” Neren asked, hammer still at the ready.
“I know what we need to do,” he told her.
She glanced at James. He was still lying on the stone, shaking as he stared at the wreckage of the automaton.
“What’s that?” Neren asked the elven mercenary warily.
“Breaking the protective circle from the outside requires a blood sacrifice. It has to be done with a blade.” He said holding up the black metal knife he now carried. He nodded towards where Dabrezil had passed out on the stone floor. “This one would be best.”
“And how do you know this?” Neren asked, lowering the hammer lucerne.
“He’s no use to us,” he told her.
“I mean how do you know it requires a sacrifice?” she asked. Things were beginning to click into place. To release the sword required a ritual blood sacrifice, and here she was a Sacrificer. How convenient.
“In the inscription,” the elven mercenary told her.
So now you speak Ancient Atlantean? Except his eyes, the strange calmness in his voice, the way he carried himself, Neren wasn’t sure that it was Clausewitz doing the talking.
Neren took hold of her carbine, trying to make it look casual. Clausewitz didn’t react.
“James,” she said to the dwarf, “bind Dabrezil’s wound and then go down and run the inscription through your translation program.”
“Why?” Clausewitz asked. “We know what we have to do.”
“I believe you,” Neren said, “but we need to stop Dabrezil from bleeding out just long enough for James to confirm what you say. Boots and bracers, there’s a lot of money at stake here, so please humour me.”
Clausewitz stared at her long enough for it to be come uncomfortable, then he nodded before heading down into the third chamber.
“That fucker’s possessed,” James hissed as, working quickly, he cut back Dabrezil’s fatigue sleeves to clean and bind the stump where the Haitian’s forearm had once been. Neren couldn’t believe how clean the cut was. The automaton’s adamantium blade had cut through bone as though it wasn’t there. “That’s why our employer warned us to keep away from blades.”
Neren nodded. She guessed that bladed weapons most somehow work as a vector for the possession. She moved over to where James was knelt by Dabrezil and crouched down next to him.
“You need to put a bullet in his head,” James continued, strapping a field dressing over the wound, “more than one.”
“Can’t, not yet anyway.”
James stopped working on the field dressing and turned to stare at her. “I need you to check the inscription first and see if he was telling the truth. Does it have to be done with a blade?”
“Or, we put a bullet in his head, seal this thing up and chalk it all up to experience,” James suggested with some feeling.
“Keep your voice down!” Neren snapped.
“That sword could be anathemic!” he hissed.
“I don’t think so…” Neren started.
“Isn’t that the whole point? How anathemas work? You’re not supposed to see them coming until it’s too late, and if he’s right, what are you going to do? Expose yourself to it? Risk possession?”
James had a point but Neren had dealt with anathemas before. It didn’t have that feeling of seductive corruption. Whatever was going on it felt colder, older and purer somehow.
“One step at a time,” she told him. “There’s something else I need you to do.”
James just looked at her.
♦ ♦ ♦
“Is the dwarf getting cold feet?” Clausewitz asked when she was half way down the steps, making her jump. She hadn’t noticed him leaning against the stone wall on the first terrace, close to the doorway.
“He’ll be fine,” Neren said as she continued down the stairs. Having seen to Dabrezil’s wounds James was now knelt next to the protective circle inscribed in the stone. Neren spent a moment wondering if Clausewitz had over heard her earlier conversation with the dwarf. It didn’t really matter. They were committed now.
“This is a waste of time,” Clausewitz said, his voice sounding much closer. Neren spun back round to find that the elf was now on the lowest terrace, just behind her. Neren hadn’t heard him move. “I’ve told you what we need to do. Go and get the schwarz.”
Neren eyed the black adamantium blade in his right hand. She was suddenly very much aware of the gravity-like pull of the sword in its chains behind her.
“Fine,” she said, unclipping her carbine from its sling, moving across to where James was watching them and laying the weapon down next to the dwarf.
James just looked up at her and nodded, signalling that Clausewitz, or whatever possessed him, had been telling the truth. It would require a blood sacrifice from an edged weapon.
Neren turned back to Clausewitz.
“You doing it?” she asked.
He looked down at the adamantium blade in his hand as though momentarily surprised that he was holding it. Then he looked back at Neren and nodded. He turned and made for the steps, with his back to her. It was the moment that Neren had been waiting for. She was moving quickly pulling both of the telescoping jitte from their sheaths on her belt, waiting for the last moment to extend the batons with a flick of her wrist, but he’d already heard the movement. Clausewitz lashed out with a backwards kick. Neren leant back out of the way and then made him pay for such a slow attack by lashing out with one of her jitte, the weighted end delivering a glancing blow to the elf’s leg. It elicited no response. Clausewitz spun around and launched himself into the air. The adamantium blade flashed down towards her head. The black metal reflected the faint light from the upper chambers. Neren batted the blade out of the way with one of the jitte but Clausewitz’s knee caught her in the chest. She went down on one knee, steadying herself.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see James using his shotgun’s pump mechanism to rapidly unload the weapon.
Clausewitz stabbed down at her. Neren pushed herself up, trying to move out of the way. The adamantium blade sliced a chunk out of her stab-proof vest and her thick fatigues. She had only narrowly managed to avoid being opened up by the razor sharp blade. She hammered her right hand jitte down into Clausewitz’s ankle, trying to break it. He grunted, staggered, but didn’t go down.
As they both turned to face each other Neren used the momentum of the turn to hammer the weighted end of her left hand jitte into Clausewitz’s temple. Bone cracked audibly, but Clausewitz’s head barely moved. Neren only just managed to get the jitte in the way of Clausewitz’s black blade as experience told her where to expect the counter strike. Metal scraped on metal. The adamantium dagger scraped shavings off the baton. Clausewitz’s blade slid into the jitte’s protruding tine. Neren tried to twist the dagger out of the elf’s hand but the adamantium blade cut straight through the tine. Neren yelped as the blade cut through her fatigues at the wrist. The adamantium felt cold against her skin but was too sharp for her to register it slicing into her flesh. Suddenly her hand felt wet, the arm of her fatigues were turning red, and one of her jitte fell from nervous fingers. Neren screamed, fury much more than pain. In her periphery James was frantically trying to reload his shotgun. The jitte in her other hand swung into the side of Clausewitz’s knee, then his jaw and then his wrist. His leg buckled as he spat blood and teeth. The crack of his wrist breaking was audible but somehow he didn’t let go of the dagger.
“Neren!” James shouted.
Neren threw herself out of the way. Loud though it was, the shotgun blast sounded wrong. As though its thunder had been eaten by the unnatural darkness. It took another shot before James hit, and two more hits from the taser darts that James had reloaded the shotgun with before the electrocuted and stunned—but still living—Clausewitz hit the ground.
James was staring at the twitching elven mercenary. The dwarf was shaking like a leaf.
Neren was on her feet, the wound on her right hand dripping blood onto the stone. The blood was crawling ahead of her towards the protective circle. Neren wasn’t sure if the circle itself, or the chained sword in its centre, was attracting the blood. Neren kicked the dagger away from Clausewitz. She looked down at the elf as he drooled and twitched on the stones, his eye returning to their original cold blue colour. The circle required blood. That was fine. She knew how to bleed someone, sacrifice them. It was her job. She reached down for the knife with her still functioning left hand. Her fingers touched the hilt. It felt like she was drowning in a cold, sharp ecstasy and then Neren was gone.
♦ ♦ ♦
Her entire body ached from the sudden muscle contractions caused by the multiple taser rounds that James had shot her with. The dwarf was standing a little distance away, a shadow behind the light of the flashlight attached to the shotgun he was aiming at her.
“Neren?” he asked.
It was a good question. Something had been crawling around in her body, controlling her mind. Something cold and sharp, with far too many angles. Something that had howled like a vast sucking abyss. She had not been herself.
At least one of the fingers on her left hand was broken. She guessed that James had to do that to get the dagger out of her hand. She looked around for the blade but it was nowhere to be seen. She guessed it had been kicked into the darkness.
“Let me see your eyes,” James ordered. She stared into the light, blinking.
“It’s me,” she told him. “Can you take the light out of my face?” He did so, but not before she realised that her once white fatigues were red now. “Clausewitz?” she asked.
James shifted the shotgun so the flashlight illuminated Clausewitz’s red body. Neren didn’t mind that her hand had killed Clausewitz. She was starting to suspect that he had been put on this mission because he was a truly bad person that the world would be better off without. Such was part of her skill set and job description. She minded that she hadn’t been in control when it happened.
The beam of light from James’s flashlight shook. She could understand that. He was well beyond his job remit but he was still functioning. She couldn’t ask more.
Regardless of who had been in control, Clausewitz had been slaughtered the way she would have done it. All the main arteries cut. Just a shame she couldn’t have hung the corpse to better drain it. His blood had seeped into symbols carved into the chamber’s stone floor. The pull of the sword felt so much stronger now. Like it could drag her bodily towards it. She heard the swords incoherent, seductive razor whispers in the soft meat of her mind. She was struggling to look away.
“Neren?” James asked.
She forced herself to look away from the chained sword.
“You okay?” Neren asked.
“No!” he told her. He left it at that but it didn’t look as though he was prepared to take his eyes off her just yet. She was also pretty sure that the shotgun was now loaded with something a bit more lethal than the taser darts. Neren forced her aching body to sit up. She used water from her canteen to clear some of the blood on her right hand and then took the penny cutters from her medkit, pausing for a moment, wondering if the scissors were blade enough to be used as a vector for the possessing entity that she was sure lived in the sword. Fortunately it seemed the scissors were below the attentions of the sword. She cut open the sleeve of her fatigues and the layers beneath. The wound in her arm was at least a very clean cut but she was losing blood. She dressed and bound the wound as quickly as she could with her left arm. It would have been quicker with James’s help but they needed at least one person on watch with a gun and, understandably, he still didn’t seem sure of Neren.
“I don’t want to touch that thing,” he told her. She assumed he meant the sword. He had moved halfway up the stairs so he could look up towards the surface and see where Dabrezil lay close to the doorway in the chamber above.
“You’ve got some kind of manipulator, right?” Neren asked as she awkwardly packed her medkit away and pushed herself to her feet. She was worried about nerve damage to her right hand; there was some movement but she didn’t feel like she could hold anything with it at the moment.
“Yes,” he told her, slung his shotgun and shrugged off his pack.
James ferretted around in his pack, and pulled out something that looked like a child’s grasping hand toy, only made out of complex hydraulics and high tensile steel. He handed it to Neren.
“Can you grab my carbine and watch my back?” she asked him.
She used her skeleton key on the locks that secured the adamantium that bound the sword. Even as the finger bone, which had belonged to a nineteenth century picklock, had reconfigured itself to slide into the first lock she hadn’t been convinced it would work. It had taken a long time but finally the first lock clicked open. All the while the sword seemed to be trying to pull her closer to it and she could hear it whispering to her. She did not need to understand the language to know that it offered her the chance to put sharp cold metal into soft pliant flesh. She tried to ignore it as best she could. Finally the last lock clicked open and the scabbarded sword fell to the floor.
Fresh blood stained the dressing on her arm. She knew it needed proper medical attention. She was hoping that their employer had some skill in the healing arts.
She found herself staring down at the sword.
She looked up sharply. James was staring at her. He wasn’t exactly pointing her own carbine at her, but he wasn’t far off.
“What the fuck?” she demanded.
“What’re you doing?”
She looked back down. Her arm was outstretched, reaching down for the sword, her fingers almost touching the hilt. She straightened up suddenly. The whispers receded, sounding disappointed. She swallowed hard and resisted the urge to just walk out of the dungeon right there and then. Instead, and as quickly as she could, she used the extending manipulator to put the sword in the warded leather bag that their employer had given them.
The whispers almost stopped. Almost.
♦ ♦ ♦
Dabrezil was conscious, though high as a kite on morphine. He was able to move with Neren’s support. She had one of her Wilson .45s in her left hand. The sword was slung over her back; her skin felt like it was trying to crawl away from it. James was a little way ahead of them, he had Neren’s carbine at the ready, which she wasn’t too sure about. She suspected he had more chance of hitting something with the shotgun, though she’d made sure the carbine’s selector was set to single shot.
James had very quickly policed up the gear and they had left the gloomy third chamber of the dungeon. Neren couldn’t wait to get rid of the sword and get somewhere warm. She was even looking forward to the ride in the Chinook. Then the Chinook exploded.
At least, Neren assumed it was the chopper. She was pretty sure that it was the only thing that could have gone up so fiercely. The three of them froze, Dabrezil muttering something unintelligible. Outside they could see the glow of the burning transport helicopter.
“Okay, back down the stairs,” Neren whispered. She could hear the crackle of flames from out in the snow.
James covered them as she managed to get Dabrezil back down the stairs, moving him behind the pyramidal frustum that was the gatehouse to the next level. She guided James to a position on the edge of the frustum that enabled him to cover the doorway to the outside world.
“You stay down here until I call you. Shoot anyone who comes through that door, you use my rifle first,” she told James, removing two extra magazines from her webbing and placing them on the stone next to him. “Don’t be shy with the grenade launcher.” She placed her two remaining grenades on the stone as well. “It’s HEDP loaded, so you may want to swap it out for the frag, or the beehive.” The beehive was basically a 40mm shotgun cartridge. “Then you go down to your shotgun, then when that’s empty you move straight to your sidearm, understand me?” James nodded, looking shit scared. She knew it wouldn’t get that far. They’d either use supressing fire to close with James, or grenades.
Neren searched Dabrezil’s webbing, the Haitian protesting weakly through an opiate haze.
“Where will you be?” James asked.
Neren found what she was looking for. The suppressor for the Haitian’s USP Tactical sidearm. She attached the suppressor to the pistol and removed the two extra magazines from Dabrezil’s webbing. She didn’t carry suppressors for her Wilsons. If she wanted to kill quietly she tended to rely on the Sisters, her karambits, but that wasn’t an option this time round.
“Hello down there?” the voice was friendly. Accented, though Neren couldn’t place it beyond European. “There is no need for this to get any nastier. We will take the sword and leave, and you can call for help. The helicopter was an accident.”
This at least she could believe. She didn’t doubt for a second that this was a leave-no-witnesses situation, but she suspected blowing the Chinook had been premature as it had warned the three of them that they were about to walk into an ambush.
“We have your friend up here. Please, let’s have no more unpleasantness.”
Despite how horrifying this must have been for him, Neren was gratified that James didn’t suggest negotiating.
Neren opened her medkit again and used the penny cutters to remove the dressing on her right arm. James glanced at her, clearly not happy, but he knew the price that the gods demanded himself. Neren emptied some of the ground dragon bone she had collected earlier into her left hand. She squeezed her right fist, dripping blood from the wound into the powdered bone before spitting in it and starting to smear it on her face. This place was a place of death, and her patron god Arawn had responsibility for such places, but she was far away from his area of responsibility. The top of the world had its own fierce gods and the magics of the dungeon itself would have been done in another god’s name. It would require a great deal of effort on Arawn’s part to grant her what she wanted and the gods hated effort. Effort was for mortals. That said, the blood was a good sacrifice, because frankly she really needed it at the moment. The dragon bone was a truly impressive offering, and of a kind that Arawn was unlikely to have seen since antiquity.
“How do I look?” Neren asked when she had finished smearing the bone and blood paste onto her face.
“Like a corpse,” James told her.
Neren whispered her prayer to Arawn, telling him what she wanted of him, and the shadows started to move, to coalesce around her, to cloak her. Whether or not that would do any good out on the ice, she didn’t know. The gods were known to have a cruel sense of humour and perhaps Arawn had decided that he wanted to see her again. The shadows swarmed around her and she went back deeper into the Dungeon to retrieve the Mikor.
♦ ♦ ♦
Neren killed the first three as she stepped out of the dungeon, back onto the ice and into flurries of swirling snow. They had been stacked up by the entrance to the dungeon, ready to breach. The mercenaries must have sensed her presence as they had started to move as soon as she left the entrance. They may not have been able to see her but their situational awareness was such that they realised the shadows were not behaving naturally. Or perhaps they had just heard her. It didn’t save them. Three head shots. She didn’t have time to double-tap them, to make sure that they were dead. She was already moving past them as they fell to the ground.
She had a moment to take in the tactical situation. It wasn’t great. Two Sikorsky S-70 helicopters, civilian versions of military Blackhawks, both bearing oil company logos, had landed on the ice a little way from the entrance to the dungeon. The wreckage of their own Chinook was still burning nearby. It looked like the two S-70s had a full compliment of passengers. There were about twenty mercenaries on the ice, minus the three she’d just killed. They wore arctic fatigues and body armour, and carried carbines and sidearms. Even as she shot another one in the face she could tell by the way they were responding to her hidden presence that they knew what they were doing. Her magic would only give her so much of an edge against twenty trained professionals, but at least she had broken out of the dungeon. Then she saw their employer.
Ice had grown through the snow to encircle the wrists and ankles of the druid that had hired them. She had been lifted into the air as though crucified. She hung there, head slumped down, hood covering her features. This was bad news, Neren knew as she moved swiftly across the snow. She held the suppressed USP in her left hand, trying to further steady the pistol with her wounded right. This meant that there was another magic wielder here and a powerful one as Neren was sure that their employer had been pretty capable herself. She assumed that the other wielder was the figure stood next to the imprisoning cross of ice. He was wearing white fatigues but under his hood his face was a featureless, black, shimmering mass that it hurt to look at. A powerful glamour that Neren suspected came from some sort of enchanted mask. She also guessed that he was the one who’d been doing the talking.
Neren had come straight through the middle of the mercenaries. The idea being that they had to watch their fields of fire to avoid shooting each other. Neren, on the other hand, did not. Their commander, however, seemed to have worked this out. He was repositioning his men, responding to where he thought the shots were coming from. He was still some distance away but Neren risked a shot anyway. She missed but it was enough that the rival mercenary commander could guess her whereabouts. Carbines and a squad automatic weapon opened fire where they thought she might be and Neren had to throw herself bodily to the ice to avoid being hit. Now she was regretting choosing the stab-proof armour over more bullet resistant types. She pushed herself onto one knee and brought the Mikor up, squeezing the trigger. Even over the gunfire the pop of the grenade launcher firing sounded deafening to her own ears. The commander, the SAW gunner and two other mercenaries were flung into the air by the force of the 40mm fragmentation grenade’s explosion. Their bodies landing on the ice like bloodied rag-dolls.
She heard firing from the entrance to the dungeon. Fool, she thought. James had been trying to help but had risked his well-protected position in the dungeon to provide her with inaccurate covering fire.
Neren swept the Mikor around to her left side, let it hang there on its sling, and picked the USP up again, hoping the gun hadn’t frozen. She needed to kill the other magic wielder and she couldn’t risk the grenade launcher as he was too close to their employer. Neren fired the USP. She had the other magic wielder in her sights but the bullet didn’t reach him. She wasn’t sure what had happened but she couldn’t shake the feeling that the bullet had been cut out of the air. Thanks to firing the Mikor, the other wielder now had a rough idea of where she was. He thrust his open left hand towards her. The red snow surrounding the bodies became a blizzard of razor-sharp flakes. The blizzard enveloped Neren. It was a cold flaying. She collapsed into the snow, feeling the Arctic wind through her shredded fatigues bleeding from a thousand cuts. She heard the crunch of boots on snow as the other magic wielder strode towards her. She had all but forgotten the sword in the extensively warded bag slung across her back. It had been quiet during the fight. Neren suspected it had enjoyed the blood being spilled. It was quiet no more. The sword’s voice was a deafening whisper in her head as she lay there bleeding from what felt like a thousand cuts. It promised her what she wanted, what she needed. Her bloodied hand reached for the blade.
♦ ♦ ♦
Afterwards, all Neren could remember were flashes, a sense of dancing amongst the mercenaries, wielding the sword. No. The sword wielded her, nourished her. The blade looked like a slice of star-filled night. It cut through flesh as though it was vapour. The blood flowed from the wounds, following the blade, making seams of red in the night sky blade as the sword drank, leaving exsanguinated corpses in her—in its—wake. She watched these flashes of battle distant and dislocated, a passenger in her own bloodied flesh. Then a terrible, crushing force grabbed her. It was like running into an invisible brick wall. Suddenly she was yanked up into the air.
♦ ♦ ♦
Neren came to, screaming, as the sword was yanked out of her hand hard enough to break fingers, but the real pain was the sense of the possessing entity being ripped our of her soul like a parasite, leaving a dripping wound behind. She was suspended three-foot above the snow by some invisible force, cold and bloody.
Her employer was stood nearby, her outstretched hand a claw. The frozen stocks that had imprisoned her were now just broken blocks of ice. The mercenaries that Neren, or rather the sword, had not killed were impaled on spikes of ice that had grown through the snow. Worryingly this included the helicopter crews. Their machines had also been impaled on the ice spikes. The magic wielder’s body was a desiccated husk, his face covered by a simple black silk mask. On the other side of the robed woman the sword hung over the snow like a tear in the world. Although it was gone from her, Neren could still hear the blade’s furious screams as the warded bag slithered across the ice and leapt into the air to envelope the sword, muffling, though not silencing, the blade’s rage. This was flashy magic of the kind that it took a great deal of power to pull off.
James sprinted across the snow and came to a halt in front of the woman, aiming Neren’s carbine at her.
“Let her go!” the clearly terrified dwarf demanded. Their employer just shrugged and Neren fell into the snow.
◊ ◊ ◊
“And?” Uathach asked.
“I think you know the rest,” Neren said. “Our employer brought us back through the Blue Paths but it was too far.” The Blue Paths were hidden ways that existed in the seas, lakes and waterways of the world. They were one of a number of paths that wielders of gods’-given magic could use to travel far faster than they would have been able to by conventional means. “We would have drowned if those guys from the Red Branch hadn’t been on the beach.”
“I think your employer left you where she knew you’d be found,” McMasters mused.
“Who is she?” Neren all but demanded.
“That’s classi-” McMasters started.
“Myrddin Wyllt,” Uathach told her. It was uncharacteristically forthcoming for the ruler of Skye.
Neren stared at the other woman. She couldn’t keep an incredulous smile from her features.
“Havers,” was all Neren could manage. It wasn’t something that a lot of people said to Uathach’s face. The other woman’s eyes narrowed but she said nothing. “I thought Myrddin was a guy and long gone.”
McMasters was looking at Uathach in shock, but at this he turned back to Neren.
“She returned some time in the fourteenth century as far as we are aware. She is one of England’s best kept secrets.”
“Isn’t she Welsh?” Neren asked.
McMasters shook his head.
“We believe Atlantean,” Uathach told her, “Originally.”
“So she was the Daemon’s Son, I mean daughter. Surely she’s anathemic?” She thought back to the shadowed hood and all that it could have hidden.
“There is little evidence of that,” McMasters finally said. It was clear that this was a subject that neither of them were comfortable with. “As far as we can tell she has always acted for the greater good.”
“Whose?” Neren demanded.
“All of us,” Uathach finally said.
“The English are our allies,” McMasters told her.
“And the sword?” Neren asked, and again they both looked profoundly uncomfortable.
“We have checked you for anathemic influences and found nothing,” Uathach told her. That was obvious. Had they found anything her debriefing probably would have come on the business end of cleansing flamethrower or fire working.
“It was hardly fucking benevolent,” Neren spat. “Who were the mercenaries, the guy in the mask?”
“We don’t know,” McMasters admitted. “We suspect that Myrddin was moving the sword because whomever they were had found its location, perhaps from an ex-Nazi, or documents sold on the open market.”
“Suspect? You told James and I fuck all and put us on the sharp end for guesswork?”
“You’re being a bit precious aren’t you?” Uathach demanded.
“We know a lot more than we did,” McMasters told her.
Neren couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps they would have been better off minding their own business.
“The bodies? The dungeon itself?” Neren asked.
Uathach tapped on the screen of her tablet and then showed it to Neren. The tablet showed side-by-side images of the dungeon’s location. The first showed the dungeon entrance, cracks in the ice spreading out from it, the burning wreckage of the Chinook, the two Black Hawks and figures milling around. The second image showed a large hole in the ice, the dungeon, the choppers, the bodies, all gone.
“You expect me to believe that she did this?” Neren asked. It beggared belief that Myrddin, however powerful, could do this without the help of the gods that called the top-of-the-world their home, and she was of the wrong tradition to hold such sway.
“Believe what you want,” Uathach said, “I’m just providing you with information.”
“That’s a lot of adamantium at the bottom of the ocean,” Neren pointed out.
“Not as much as you might think,” McMasters said. “If your suspicions were correct then much of it was inside an extra-dimensional space. Chances are that Myrddin collapsed it before she dropped it into the water.”
“And surprisingly few people would have been aware it was ever even there,” Uathach said.
“And fewer still will want to crash the financial markets by dumping that amount of the world’s most precious metal into it,” McMasters added.
There’s always someone looking for an edge, Neren thought.
“Nice and neat?” she asked.
“Anything but,” Uathach told her.
“Are we done?”
◊ ◊ ◊
Neren found James sat on his surfboard out in Talisker Bay. She lifted her mountain bike up into the truck-bed of the 6×6 Toyota Hilux hybrid they’d converted together. James was sat on his surfboard with his back to the beach. He was looking west out to sea, towards South Uist. Neren hadn’t brought her own surfboard but she’d half been expecting something like this and had her wetsuit with her in her daypack.
Neren was pretty sure James was aware of her approach but he didn’t turn to look at her until she reached his board.
“How’s the surf?” she asked, smiling. The water was flat. He just turned to look at her.
“We’re supposed to fear it, aren’t we? The sea contains all manner of terrors, the Fomorians, kelpies, nuckelavee, even old Dominu herself.” James spat in the water and made the sign against evil.
“They’re all old terrors, seen less and less in this day-and-age,” Neren pointed out as she took hold of his board to steady herself in the water.
James looked down at her in the water.
“You just came straight in and swam out, didn’t you?” he asked. Neren nodded. “I spent an hour on the beach before I had the guts to paddle out here. An hour. I knew if I didn’t then I’d never surf again.”
At the end of it all it was nearly drowning in the Blue Paths that was playing on his mind. She suspected he was beating himself up for his combat performance, but he had done far more than anyone had a right to expect of him.
“Doesn’t matter how long it took,” Neren said, “You still came out here.”
James didn’t say anything.
Neren turned to watch the sun set with him.