“Stop right there.”
The ragged-looking rogue froze as he was about to step into the large stone room. Heaving a resigned sigh, he turned from the destination he and his party had fought and died to reach, and faced the newcomers.
The new group was led by a tall, weathered woman dressed in an unusual mix of leather armour and spelunking equipment. She kept the glowing tip of her wand aimed directly at the rogue, who was dressed in little more than rags. She was flanked by two others: a warrior in scarred, blackened armour carrying a double-bladed axe; and a loremaster wearing copper-framed glasses on his long nose.
“Just so you’re aware, I knew you were following us most of the way.”
“You knew they were there, and you didn’t tell me?” spluttered the rogue’s sole surviving companion, a skinny woman in artificer’s robes. “Why not?”
The rogue looked at her and shrugged, making the tattered sleeve of his shirt fall off. “‘Knew’ is perhaps a bit strong. ‘Suspected’ is more accurate. Besides… I was kind of hoping the traps might take care of them for us.”
“Sorry to disappoint. You lost two of your own, yet somehow you—” the enemy leader waved at him with the wand, making him stiffen slightly, “—managed to escape those snares with nothing more than your clothes destroyed.” Frowning, he looked down at his tattered silken shirt and dirty, torn pants. His wide velvet cummerbund was also a mess, looking like it had been dragged through the dirt several times. “These ‘clothes,’ as you so casually put it, were very dear to me. That cloak was a gift from my father.”
“It certainly served you—and us—much better as that improvised rope bridge over the pit trap.” She nodded at the artificer. “Again, sorry for your loss.”
“He was only three months from becoming a full artificer!” she cried as she stepped forward. “He didn’t have to die here!”
“Easy, Malein.” The rogue put his arm out to stop her before she did anything foolish. “They’re just trying to upset you.”
Now it was the enemy leader’s turn to shrug. “I sympathize with you—Malein, was it?—after all, we had nothing to do with your friends’ untimely deaths. You might, however, wish to focus your anger on the one who claimed he could lead you through these catacombs without incident.”
The artificer turned to glare at the rogue, pushing away his arm. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”
Now he turned his disapproving frown on her. “I did say that I would do everything in my power to ensure you reached your goal in one piece, but also that even I couldn’t guarantee we would be successful. As you’ve seen for yourself, the catacombs are a dangerous place, and the traps are here to keep the unwitting… or the unwary… out. Trust me, if you had come in here alone, all of you—” his gaze swept across everyone in the corridor, “—would be dead now.”
“Exactly—which is why you’re now going to take us into the main chamber,” the leader said. “You already bypassed the traps on the way here, and I have no doubt that you’ll be just as successful inside.” She waved the rogue forward with her wand. “On your way now.”
“What do you want in there?” Malein asked, “Who sent you?”
“I’d still that tongue if I were you,” she replied, making the tip glow white-hot for a few seconds, “It would be difficult to defend your papers at the academy without it.”
Malein gulped, but stood her ground. “Just common tomb robbers, then. I don’t know why you came down here in the first place.”
“Indeed, you don’t know—and you don’t need to know. Now hush—your lightfinger here is about to earn his pay.” She extended her arm to point the wand at the man’s face. “I won’t ask again.”
“All right.” The rogue glanced at his companion. “Stay here until I say it’s safe to enter.” He turned back to the woman and her associates. “Coming?”
“You first,” she replied.
“If you insist…” Raising a booted foot, he gently stepped onto the first large flagstone past the chamber entrance. When nothing happened, he cautiously put more weight on it, ready to lunge backward if necessary. The stone held, not breaking away or depressing to set off a final trap to catch the overconfident. Although he had suspected it would be safe, the rogue sighed in relief and walked inside, staring up at what could only be viewed as a marvel of technology.
After a few moments, he turned back to the leader, who stood in the entranceway, her mouth half-open in awe. He couldn’t blame her—the sight was amazing.
“You can come inside now, it’s all right.”
She stared at him for a long moment, then slowly placed a foot down on the stone floor. When nothing happened, she walked inside, looking all around. The warrior—or bodyguard, or whatever he was—followed, staying close by her side.
The loremaster, however, rushed past her to stand by the rogue, who had taken up the best position in the room to get a good look at the massive contraption of gears, flywheels, lenses, and levers, all set into the four walls of the cavernous room itself. Although it didn’t look as if this room had been disturbed in years, perhaps decades, the floor was perfectly clean, and the massive metal gears gleamed in the lantern light as if they had been installed yesterday.
While the woman and the academic were studying the massive machine, the rogue glanced back at the entrance. Malein stared at him. Satisfied that she was out of any potential harm’s way, the rogue turned back to their captors.
“What… what does it do?” the leader asked no one in particular.
“Don’t ask me—I was just hired to bring them here, remember?” he replied.
The rogue’s answer was nearly lost in the torrent of words from the loremaster, who had removed a leather-bound tome from his pack and was frantically sketching the device. “Well, that is what we must find out, isn’t it? A mechanism of this size surviving for as long as it has in the catacombs, especially given their tendency to shift and change over time, is absolutely incredible. This will require weeks, perhaps months of study before we can even begin to fathom its operation and intended use.”
“That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t put coin in my purse right now,” the woman said. “I was under the impression there would be something more—portable that we could remove from here.”
“Oh no no no no, if you were to tinker with or remove even the smallest cog or gear, the result could be catastrophic,” the man replied. “You have been paid well to bring us here, and so you have. The fact that there is no easily-obtainable loot or technology for you is not my concern.”
The woman grunted and folded her arms, careful to keep her wand at the ready. “So this is it—we’re just going to stand around while you draw pictures?”
“This is exactly what we came here for—what you were hired to do in the first place,” the man replied, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “Although it would seem that I should have hired that other man instead—after all, he actually bypassed the traps. You merely followed in his footsteps.”
“I got you here didn’t I? And besides, he—hey, where’d he go?”
While they had been bickering, the rogue had slipped over to a row of large levers set into the rock wall. Taking a small crystal wrapped with an intricate pattern of wire from inside a hidden pocket in his tattered cummerbund, he placed it in a small niche next to the panel, then selected and threw the third lever from the right end of the row.
With a creak and a loud grinding sound, the machine activated. Gears turned, wheels spun, and the largest lens began moving down into a position over the main floor.
“What did you do?” the scholar asked, glancing around at the sudden activity with wide eyes.
“Nothing—I swear!” the rogue replied, already several paces away from the bank of levers.
“Never mind that—what should we do?” the woman cried as she looked around nervously. “Run?”
“I don’t know about all of you, but this pattern indicates that someone or something might have stood here when this thing was activated,” the rogue said as he returned to the centre of the room. “That’s what I’m going to do, and I suggest you three do the same.”
The other explorers hurried to comply, all of them standing in a neat row as indicated by the row of worn spots on the floor. The rogue shot Malein a warning look, and she stepped back away from the entrance. All around them, the machine kept going until the main, large lens shuddered to a stop, still suspended above the floor several meters overhead.
“Is it over?” the loremaster asked. “It is finished doing whatever it was… doing?”
“Not yet,” the rogue replied as he stepped to one side.
As he did, a concentrated beam of bright white light shot through the network of lenses from an unknown source—and straight through the area where the three robbers were standing. The blinding beam, so bright the rogue flinched away from it, sliced straight through all of them, including their clothes, skin, flesh, and bone. Eerily, there was absolutely no sound, but he caught a brief scent of something burning—metal, perhaps?—before it was replaced by the stink of charred meat.
The leader didn’t even get a chance to activate the wand she had been brandishing. Her mouth just opened in a soundless exclamation as she sank to the floor, her leather armour now containing a fist-sized hole straight through it—and her. The loremaster’s book burst into flames from where the beam had lanced through the cover and pages, the burning tome only adding another odour to the room. The rogue stood alone in the chamber with three dead bodies.
The rogue crossed to the levers and raised the third one, activating the machine again, and allowing the lens to rise back into the air. The beam stopped, and he quickly removed the wire-wrapped crystal and slipped it back into his hidden pocket.
“All right, you can come in now,” he called while taking a step back and pretending to study the row of levers.
Malein peeked her head inside, saw the bodies on the floor, and her face paled. “What—what happened to them?”
The rogue walked toward them, shaking his head. “I’m not really sure. We were all looking around, and I was examining this row of levers when suddenly the machine started up. To what end I do not know. As I was going back to them, that terrible beam of light emerged from somewhere and I think bounced off the lenses around the room, and… well, you know the rest.”
“Yes—it was so bright I couldn’t even see into the room,” Malein replied, eying the loremaster’s flaming book with a mournful expression. “Such a shame… still, we are here now.”
“Indeed,” the rogue said. “however, I suggest that as long as we are here, we just look—and don’t touch anything.”
His suggestion was met with an emphatic nod.
* * *
Weeks later, the rogue trudged along a snow-covered trail that wound through sandy scrubland. He did not walk with any particular urgency—after his time inside the catacombs, he enjoyed breathing the crisp, clean desert air.
His destination was a large mountain with several peaks of varying sizes in the distance. As he walked, occasionally he would kneel and bow his head at very specific places and times during this journey. If asked, he would have said that he was merely giving thanks for the successful completion of his mission. But as with almost everything he did, there was a secondary meaning to his brief stops.
At the base of the mountain, he looked up, spotting what looked like a single, small room that had been carved out of the very rock high up on the side of the highest crag. One needed to know exactly where to look to find it, otherwise it would have resembled just another featureless wall of stone to the untrained eye. Once he had located it, the rogue began his ascent. When he reached the bottom of the sheer wall that stretched up several dozen meters, no ladder or basket or steps were there to assist him. Instead, he began scaling the cliff face effortlessly, using only his hands and feet.
Soon enough, he came to an opening in the floor and climbed up. The few halls he travelled were empty, but he sensed life throughout the complex, just not nearby. He was aware that this was a small part of the massive complex that filled the entire mountain, with hundreds tunnels and rooms and corridors, so many that even he didn’t know where all of the corridors led, or what every room in here contained. Only one person here knew all of that.
He entered a large, open room, in which several dozen men and women were practicing various skills, from wall-climbing to blade throwing to unarmed combat. Others were clustered in small groups as instructors lectured them everything from diplomacy to medicine to woodworking. The only sound was the swish of practice blades, and the occasional thud as a thrown body hit the ground. All of the people here—instructors and students alike—communicated with an intricate series of hand signals.
As the rogue passed by, he nodded to several instructors, all of whom nodded back. He also signed to one of them: “Tell Jabri to work on his camouflage—I spotted him on my way in.”
The instructor nodded. Poor Jabri would now have to undergo a grueling lesson that no disciple wanted to learn if they could avoid it: hide and seek. With no weapons and hardly any clothes, they would have to evade three instructors around the top of the snow-capped mountain for twenty-four hours. If they were caught, the time period restarted, with no rest or food for the hunted. The disciple either passed the test, or starved or fell off the mountain or froze to death, whichever came first.
Eventually, the rogue came to a large, long hallway, its walls and floor made of polished white marble. The center of the hall had a thick rug that led to a dais upon which sat an old man in dark blue robes, with a long, black, plaited beard. He sat in a tall, polished chair that had been carved from a single tree trunk. Incredibly, the old man’s chin was resting on his chest, and his normally bright black eyes appeared to be closed. It seemed difficult to believe, but the old man looked to be… asleep.
Instantly the rogue was on guard. In all his years, he had never even heard of the Rayiys sleeping—indeed, no one had ever even seen him sleeping, not since he had ascended to the ironwood chair decades ago. That he should be doing so now was unheard of… and therefore, a trap.
In the instant he stepped into the room, the rogue had a choice to make: flight or fight. If someone had managed to sneak in here and somehow assassinate the Rayiys, then they must be punished. Correcting his forward stride, the rogue continued into the room, his boots making no noise on the thick carpet. Although he looked relaxed, one hand stole to the handle of one of pair of punch daggers hidden on his body.
“Oh please, stay your hand,” the old man snapped without opening his eyes or raising his head. “If I had been in any real danger, they would have been able to dispatch me twice over before you got here.”
The rogue walked up to stand before him and bowed. “Apologies for my tardy entrance, Rayiys.”
The old man raised his head, pinning the rogue with his intense gaze. “At least you were silent enough when you entered the room. And yet—there was something still lacking—a presence of… well, anyone of consequence, I suppose.”
“I was under the impression that we should not be detected when we do not wish to be,” the rogue replied. “Nevertheless, if there had indeed been a threat, no doubt I would have found you sitting here, surrounded by the bodies of those foolish enough to attack the Old Man of the Mountain.”
“Humph—I definitely thought my etiquette instructors were better than this. Flattery is not yet your forte, almurid,” the old man said. “Nevertheless, what news do you bring?”
“The writings on the plaques we located were correct,” the rogue replied as he removed the wire-wrapped crystal from his pocket and held it up. “This is the activation key for the Machine inside the Mountain.”
“Yes… but to what end?” The old man reached out to pluck the crystal from his disciple’s fingers.
“The lever the scroll described created a bright beam that seared through all it touched,” the rogue said, and quickly recounted what happened in the machine room. “My theory is that the machine is designed to affect other, smaller machines in some way, but I do not understand how.”
“Another piece of the puzzle solved… but this one only leads to more questions… such as what shall we do with this new information? Do we seek to unlock this machine’s secrets, no matter what cost? Or should we simply ensure that no one has access to such a device, for fear they would seek a way to turn it into a weapon…” The old man leaned back in his chair and steepled his thin fingers in front of him. “And what of the party that hired you to take them inside?”
“The scholar studied the machine for several days, making many sketches,” the rogue replied. “As far as I know, she did not ascertain the machine’s original purpose, or its activation method, so that secret is still safe with us.”
“As it should be. And now you have a trusted contact inside the Artificer’s Guild—that will no doubt come in handy one day. You have done well, almurid. Go now, and await your next assignment.”
The rogue bowed again, then turned and slipped soundlessly from the room, leaving the old man alone, studying the crystal until the sun slipped below the mountain peaks, as if he could somehow divine its purpose and the intent of those who had created it if he could only look deep enough inside it…
* * *
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.