Treasure hunting was tough work in Axia. The best landmarks had been picked clean centuries ago, and the ones that still had something worth stealing were far more difficult to come by.
When you did get a lead, it was usually nothing more than a rumour. Some small-town sky captain had seen an abandoned airship or a floating bit of rock with a cave and little else, and maybe something good was hidden away inside. You’d spend three days flying through the miasma looking for a hunk of rock that might have drifted to the Southern Azure by tomorrow. Half the time, you’d find nothing more than a skeleton and a farewell note written by someone who had long since given up any hope of rescue.
That was fine for most treasure hunters. The trick was to make sure you got there first, while there was still something worth taking. That made for fierce competition, so every lead needed to be followed, no matter how unreliable.
That’s why Sorella was so glad she had come to Summit. The mountain was buried in ancient loot, much of it sitting dusty and forgotten in one archive or another. Sure, there were more people around, but for a skilled rogue, there really wasn’t much difference between a ruin and a vault. Getting past the guards wasn’t any more of a challenge than avoiding traps, and if there were guards, at least you knew you’d be going home with something.
Meanwhile, she could always go to the tunnels if she felt like rolling the dice. There was an entire civilization beneath the mountain, and while the Grey Legion had ransacked much of it, Sorella knew there were plenty of untouched nooks and crannies. It was never a sure thing, but as far as Sorella was concerned, a good treasure hunter needed to be a bit of a gambler. The tunnels let her scratch that itch.
It was that sense of adventure that was driving her today. She’d been drinking in Cloudbreak when she heard a rumour about some miners down in Toehold who had unearthed a series of chambers that had clearly been shaped by human hands. The miners said the rooms were empty, but when it came to secrets, most civilians didn’t know what they were looking for, so Sorella decided to investigate for herself. She strapped on her leather bracers, counted the throwing knives in the sash across her chest, and threw a brown cape over her shoulders for the trek to the base of the mountain.
Getting into the mines was easy enough. People were always coming and going, and it’s not like the mines themselves needed much security. The local operation was far more efficient than any thief could ever hope to be, so no one marked Sorella as she made her way through the dig. One of the miners even shrugged and gave her directions to the recent site.
She stopped in front of a narrow hole in the wall that disappeared into blackness. No one made any attempt to stop her as she lifted her torch and crawled through. When she emerged, she found that everything was much as the rumour said. Sorella was standing in a square chamber around 30 feet across, the walls and floor made of large brinks of perfectly interlocking stone. The room was completely bare, the only noteworthy features being the doorways cut into the middle of the walls to the left and right of her entrance.
Sorella lifted her torch and explored the complex. It consisted of six rooms in total, each of them identical save for the layout of the doors connecting them. She made a second pass, and still couldn’t find anything of note. There were no markings on the walls, no runes etched into the floor, no stone that seemed even a little out of place. For once, Sorella thought the miners might have had the right idea when they gave up on their search. It looked for all the world like a series of empty rooms. Based on the austere layout, they could have been used as servants’ quarters, or bureaucratic offices of some kind.
And yet, Sorella’s professional senses were tingling. There was something odd about the rooms, which were a little too perfect and a little too austere. Even servants’ quarters usually had more windows, and the chambers themselves didn’t seem to lead…anywhere. She doubted the original occupants entered through a mine shaft. Something told her this suite had been built for a purpose, although she was stumped as to what it was.
She made her way to the innermost chamber and ran her hands along the walls, pressing every stone to see if it would budge. Every single one held firm until she was halfway along the third wall. The bricks didn’t move, but there was the slightest gap between a stone and the one next to it, a crack so small that not even insects could squeeze through that nevertheless seemed to form the outline of a door. The position matched the doorways in the other rooms.
Sorella stepped back and examined the wall. There was no sign to indicate how it opened, but this was not the first time she had encountered a tricky door. She poked and prodded at the various stones until she found one with a tiny indentation located in the spot where you might find a doorknob on a more conventional door. She pressed the knot with the tip of her dagger – only reckless rogues would risk losing fingers – and the cracks outlining the frame of the door began to glow, shooting narrow beams of bright golden light that seemed blinding in the darkness.
A moment later, the stones inside the edges started to dissolve, until they disappeared entirely and Sorella was left standing in front of an open doorway much like all of the other ones in the area. Sorella smiled to herself. The puzzle proved easier than expected, but most people would never think to look too closely at an empty room. She saw things that lesser people didn’t, and that’s what made her a professional.
She strode through the entryway, then whipped her head around when she heard the sound of grinding stone as soon as she crossed the threshold. The stone wall had reformed behind her, trapping her inside, and Sorella felt her first tinge of unease since entering the dungeon (and it was now a dungeon). She knew better than to panic—she’d done this often enough to know that if there was a way in, there was sure to be a way out—but she would have to give more credit to the danger. The outer rooms had lulled her into a false sense of security, and she’d made an amateur mistake.
Once her expectations were adjusted, Sorella turned back to the room and held her torch high, throwing dancing light onto several rows of pillars that ran off into the distance. Though it was made of the same material, the room was far bigger than the others—big enough that she was unable to see any of the other walls. She pulled a dagger from her belt and twirled it between her fingers, ready to throw as many as she needed at any sign of movement. Then she crept deeper into the hall, her pace slow and deliberate as she peered around every column. Her soft footsteps were barely audible, even in the echoing vastness of the subterranean room.
As expected, the traps became more frequent as Sorella moved beyond the first row of pillars. Most of them were relatively simple, but there were enough of them that Sorella needed to stay alert to avoid stumbling from one into another. She stepped over a tripwire and danced around a pitfall, then threw a dagger to disarm a pressure plate that caused a few dozen spikes to shoot from the floor.
Then she passed another row of pillars and froze when she found herself standing not ten feet away from some horrific abomination. The thing was hovering idly in midair, looking like a severed brain with serpents writhing above it and a spinal column and some other viscera dangling below. It was bobbing up and down at about head height, giving off a faint green glow that made it seem as if the air itself was sick.
Sorella stood as still as possible. Whatever it was, the creature didn’t seem to have noticed her, although it didn’t have any eyes so it was difficult to tell. Sorella’s spine went rigid. There was a sound like a valve releasing steam, and the brain emitted a small puff of purple smoke that looked eerily like miasma.
Several tense moments passed, and Sorella remained rooted in place. The cloud dissipated within a foot of its point of origin. Meanwhile, the monster was yet to move from its spot, seeming content to float in place. Sorella relaxed her spine and exhaled. The monster was plainly alive, but it seemed to behave more like a trap than a living thing. If so, it was simply one more thing she’d have to avoid. She raised her torch and peered into the distance, and sure enough, she saw more of them floating near other pillars to her left and right.
Sorella took another deep breath, then slowly turned her back on the first creature, keeping one ear open for any sound of motion. Though she didn’t know how much good it would do, and she found that prospect mildly unsettling. A creature without feet was also a creature without footsteps, and that made it far sneakier than any rogue Sorella had ever met. She hadn’t expected to find a monster, and she usually assumed she’d have some kind of warning if something dangerous was running around.
Sorella tried to shake the creature from her mind. She had a job to do, and she’d brought down much bigger prey on past adventures. She tamped down her lingering unease and tried to focus on the task at hand, putting one foot cautiously in front of the other and inching closer toward the unexplored depths of the dungeon.
Before long, the creatures faded into the background of her mind. Sorella felt more comfortable now that she knew that they were there. At the end of the day, she was still a treasure hunter, and this was just another hunt. Despite the earlier scare, it soon felt like a routine day at work, and she was making good progress, as she always did.
Sorella skirted some more traps and brains, and was finally rewarded when her torch revealed an altar set against the far wall of the chamber, which was now coming into view. There didn’t seem to be nearly as many traps this close to the prize, as if the person who built the place never expected anyone to get so far. Once again, Sorella chuckled. Outwitting those who fancied themselves clever was one of her favorite aspects of the job.
She set her torch in a sconce on the final pillar, then approached the altar. The stone slab was plain, another piece of rock without any markings. Sorella circled it warily, tapping the stone with her dagger while listening for a hollow or imperfection. Finding none, she stepped back to examine it. The altar was far too well defended to be a dead end. There was something here. She only needed to unlock it.
A few minutes passed. Sorella was still considering her next point of attack when there was a sound like a valve releasing steam. She turned and stumbled backwards when she saw one of the brains floating in the air behind her. The cloud of purple smoke was already starting to dissipate, but she couldn’t help noticing that it was much larger and denser than before, filling an area nearly ten feet in diameter. The creature belched again, and the cloud was bigger still.
This time, Sorella’s professional instincts told her to run. She knew better than to doubt her intuition. She never wanted to go home empty handed, but she was willing to make that sacrifice if that’s what it took to make it home. Treasure hunters who couldn’t handle disappointment seldom lasted in the business. She recovered her footing and dashed for her torch, vowing to reach the exit as quickly as possible.
Then something stung her leg. She barely had time to get her arms up before she staggered headlong into the pillar. A thin needle was sticking out of her calf when she looked down. When she looked up, she saw another one of the brains emerging from the darkness to her right. Sorella was enveloped in an enormous cloud of purple vapour, hacking violently as she inhaled the noxious fumes.
The toxic haze stung her eyes and blurred her vision. She ripped the torch off the wall, but her left leg was limp and heavy when she tried to run, as if her strength was draining out through the tiny puncture in her calf. The miasma coursed through her veins, and she began coughing blood and retching in agony as the poison ate away at her innards.
Somehow, she pushed through the pain, rounding the pillar and making her way towards the sealed door she had come through. She would find some way to open it. She had to. But first she had to get far enough away to use the miasma antidote she had stashed in one of the pouches of her belt. The creatures were slow, so she only needed to outrun them for a short time.
She ran until she was wheezing and exhausted. Her poise gave way to panic when she looked back. Her energy was failing, yet she hadn’t put any distance between herself and the monsters, which continued their slow, creeping, and implacable pace. There was now a small swarm closing in from all directions, silently drifting towards her with cold inevitability.
Sorella cried out as a barrage of spines embedded themselves in her side. She fell to her knees, her hands fumbling at her belt for the antidote, then curling into claws as violent spasms shook her body. The glass vial with the antidote shattered. She found herself contorting on the floor, her back arched against the chill stone as the creatures pressed in on her. She wondered for a moment if the torch was dying, or if she was, or if the growing cloud of miasma had simply swallowed her whole.
The light went out. Sorella died with the taste of miasma burning in her lungs, wondering how she had made such a fatal miscalculation.
The trick door fell away as soon as Evera released the spell. Artificial light flooded into the room, and one by one she banished the Spinecrawlers back to the Rift where she had found them. When she was done, the room was empty save for a collection of rudimentary traps and the corpse of a thief she had seen skulking about the Riftkeeper compound on more than one occasion.
She made a note in the white, pearlescent pages of her fieldbook. “Take the body to the laboratory,” she said to her new apprentice.
She had been assigned both a supervisor and an assistant—the former to keep tabs on the rogue experiments she had been running in Summit’s lower reaches, and the latter to help her take them further. Though the Tumblespine incident had been a tragedy for the sleepy town of Toehold, it had been a breakthrough for the Riftkeepers. They were now able to summon lesser Riftspawn for longer periods, and with greater stability.
“And take care with those traps,” she added. “I don’t want to carry back another body.”
As directed, her apprentice dragged the dead thief through a Rift on his way back to the guild hall in Sparkstone.
“The thief is dead, Ev,” her supervisor said. “Why on earth are you keeping the body?”
“I want to do a proper autopsy,” she replied. “I need to know exactly what the Spinecrawlers did to our subject.”
“I run the clean-up crew. I don’t need you making another mess,” he said. “I’d say we learned everything we need to know. The security chief is going to want those things posted in all our vaults as soon as possible.”
“On that, we’re agreed,” Evera said. “I’m just trying to be thorough.”
“Your call,” Orlias replied. “But if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were collecting trophies. Did you put anything in the altar?”
“Of course not,” Evera said, looking almost offended. “She was no amateur. She managed to get her hands on more than anyone is willing to admit, and I wasn’t going to risk losing more.”
“So how’d you know she’d take the bait?”
“I know the type. I’ve never met a thief who could turn down a mystery.”
“Well, it worked,” Orlias said. “Just make sure the Spinecrawlers stay where they’re supposed to. I don’t want to see one of those things at the foot of my bed when I wake up to use the chamber pot, and we can’t have another incident in Toehold.”
With that, Orlias opened a Rift and disappeared. Evera looked at the empty tile where the thief had fallen, her cold body frozen in the throes of torment. Then she resealed the door and followed her apprentice back to her lab.
This week’s Archive story comes from Eric Weiss, a Toronto-based writer, performer, and media critic. In addition to his work with EMBERWIND, he is the current Associate Editor (and former Games Editor) for ThatShelf.com, as well as the writer and co-creator of the stage play Not All Fedoras.
Art by William Liu, a freelance artist from Toronto, Canada, who is passionate about designing and illustrating creatures and approaches life with a calm, curious demeanour.