Stathis examined the loot – undead normally had pretty good pickings, and this group were no exception. She dangled a golden necklace between her fingers, the centrepiece a jewelled crest of some ancient family, long since lost to history. It was plucked from her grasp, Janaxia turning it over in her hands, as she dug a painted fingernail into the metal to assay it for purity.
‘The Gaparl sigil. They’ll pay well for this. They always like to remind people of their age.’
Well, completely unknown to most people. Even by the loose standards of adventurers, Janaxia was decidedly not ‘most people’. Stathis sniffed, something unusual in the air, a light, delicate fragrance, odd amongst the dust and decay. Was Janaxia wearing perfume? In a dungeon? Well, the flowery scent was definitely nicer than the must and mould of preserved corpses, and what she spent her share of the loot on was her business, but scent? In a dungeon?
Semari tossed a bag on the pile, a few coins spilling out, more gold glinting in the firelight. ‘Found a chest in that sideroom.’ She jerked a thumb at a portal, the stone carved with glyphs of warding. ‘The lock took a bit of work, but had that inside. Standard Old Empire stuff, but a bit of extra shine never hurts. There’s a big hole and a weird altar thing as well. Anyway, are we going to ask Janaxia what the hell’s up with her magic?’
Stathis groaned. ‘Dammit Semari! I was trying to build up to that!’ For a rogue, proficient in stealth and subtlety, Semari had all the social grace and tact of an angry battering ram, that was also on fire.
Janaxia’s face went cold, her crimson forelock intensifying in brightness, stark against the deep black of the rest of her hair. ‘Oh? And what’s wrong with my magic? I didn’t hear you complaining when I killed that zombie that was about to eat your face!’
‘It’s not a criticism, but, well…’ Stathis trailed off.
‘You’re not a wizard.’ Semari continued for her, blunt as a mace to the face.
‘Is this because I’m a woman? Or because I pay attention to my appearance? Wizards don’t have to be old men with big beards and bad dress sense!’
Semari held up a hand, still stained with bonedust and ichor, raising fingers as she counted up. ‘Hey, I’ve worked with Gandaral the Beautiful, I know wizards can look good! Gods, but he’s a pretty, pretty man. But wizards know lots of spells. You know, like, ten, tops. Wizards have to study their books to memorize spells, I’ve seen you go days without cracking that thing.’ She gestured at the bulky tome strapped to Janaxia’s waist, wrapped in chains, a gem glowing the same crimson light as her hair.
‘I know many spells!’
‘Bullshit. Let me count them. You’ve got the energy blast, the firey blast, that creepy magic hand thing, that invisible servant thing, the hellfire, the mind-warping iron crown, and whatever that thing that breaks a hole in the world is. Oh, and that fancy effects spell every damn caster knows, and that weird thing that makes people really like you, but then they you mind-whammied them and hate you. That’s, like, eight spells. I’ve known apprentice wizards from the Tower that know that many by the end of their first semester.’
‘My spells are perfectly normal! And I simply prefer to master a smaller range of incantations, then know dozens of spells that never get used.’ The two of them squared off, arms crossed, the pile of loot piled up on a stone slab between them, now forgotten.
Stathis stepped between them, casting a glance over at the final member of their party, Parth Woodfang, who simply shrugged and went back to noting down the loot, carefully accounting for every brass coin. For a ranger, she was weirdly good at accountancy. And honest to boot, a rare trait in a coin-counter.
‘What Semari is trying to say, in her very own, very special way, is that we want to know what you can do. We’ve fought together for long enough that we all trust each other, but we just want to know what’s going on and that you’re OK.’
‘And knowing what creepy-ass spell you’re going to pull out in the future would be nice! What the hell is that thing that cracks a hole in the world? Something tried to touch me in there, and it wasn’t a nice touch - it burnt through my armour!’ Semari held up an arm, showing where her leather bracer had been partially dissolved, the material eaten away by acid, skin beneath still red and sore. ‘Wizards don’t do shit like that!’
Stathis was forced to agree. ‘She does have a point. I used to work with the Ochre Wizards – they flung a lot of spells around, and Garth Flamebinder liked to set things on fire, but it was just regular fire. That thing you do when you get hurt and make your attacker burn? That’s not regular fire. Regular fire doesn’t howl in agony, isn’t green, and doesn’t look like a screaming skull. That’s pretty weird, you have to admit.’
‘Or that thing with the crown. Like, enchantment magic? Bit creepy, especially when an enchanter’s hitting on you, but not that weird. Handy against bandits and stuff. But you make a crown of molten iron appear on their forehead, and then they attack their mates. That’s not just magic, that’s messed up, eldritch stuff! And the writing on it’s in the Unreadable Tongue, the same thing we saw in that messed-up, impossible dungeon over in Greenstone Pass. Where you led us out by reading it. Despite the name – it’s Unreadable. Clues in the name. Like, the ancient sages that know all the things don’t know how to read it!’
Stathis tried to be more conciliatory, even as Janaxia’s face grew angrier, hair turning bright crimson. ‘Look, we’re not angry with you. We just want to know what’s going on. That you haven’t sold your soul to demons, devils or whatever, from one of the underworlds. Or been replaced by a doppelganger or a souleater or something.’
Parth choose this moment to speak up, clicking her fingers as though she’d had a sudden revelation. ‘Not a doppelganger. Too much colour. Grey Davan’s a doppelganger, nothing bright.’ She tugged at her hair, a clear reference to Janaxia’s crimson lash, now brilliant, crimson red, bright enough to shed light.
‘Grey Daven’s a doppelganger? Really? Huh, guess he got replaced when his crew were in the Skullcrack Caves? He used to be such as asshole, then suddenly got better. That explains a lot. He even bought me a pint last time we met, nice guy. Well, he is now.’
Parth nodded, then return to her usual silence.
‘Bet his wife’s glad as well, he was a terrible husband and father.’ Stathis dragged herself back onto point. ‘Yes, anyway, Janaxia – what do you have to say about this? We like you, you’re our friend’, Semari sniffed, indicating that the sentiment of friendship wasn’t entirely universal, ‘we just want to make sure we’re not going to get sacrificed to the flaming pits or something.’
Janaxia drew herself up to her full height, glaring at them both. Despite her slight stature, she had a good glare, something they probably trained her in at noble school, the firelight and her hair giving her an ominous aspect. ‘I have studied many ancient and arcane languages, and am skilled in deciphering the ancient tongues.’
Semari responded. ‘Yeah, but, like, all of them? Remember that time at the Palace of the Golden Feather? That obelisk thing had at least twenty different languages on, and you read them. All of them! Unless some god of language’s been touching you up on the sly, no-one knows that many! And when we asked about it, you said something we couldn’t hear, which was super-creepy.’
‘It was from -----------.’ Janaxia’s final word was a sort of soft hiss, sliding off the memory as soon as it was said.
‘Yes, that’s what we mean. We don’t know what you’re trying to say, but we can’t hear it! And the Unreadable Script was burnt out of reality in the Godswar - it’s conceptually unknowable, beyond the ken of mortal races, all that stuff.’
Stathis nodded. ‘Semari is right, it’s a fundamental part of creation that was scoured from existence millennia ago. Even copying the shapes is unpleasant; I used to have to it sometimes as punishment, and can’t remember any of it. It’s a useful skill, and something I can add to our adverts to get us better rates, but it’d be nice to know these things. So, Janaxia, what do you have to say?’
‘--------‘. Another word that slid out of perception as soon as it was said. From the look on Janaxia’s face, it wasn’t a nice word. ‘I am a scholar, of the dawn of all things and the time before the Ancient Dark. I have acquired a number of somewhat unusual skills in the course of my studies. As a noble of high blood, anything less than excellence would be unbefitting to my ancestors.’
Semari groaned. ‘Oh Gods, it’s an ancestor thing. You’ve got some ancestor witch-priestess riding backpost in your soul, plotting her resurrection and recreation of her ancient empire, haven’t you? Like what happened to Telmar Blackblade!’ Semari pointed at Janaxia accusingly. ‘It took three clerics to exorcise her, and she’s still in hock to the temple for it. If you’re possessed, you’re paying all of the costs out of your share!’
Janaxia put her hands on her hips, cheeks flushing the same colour as her forelock. ‘I most certainly am not possessed! The founder of my line was Shimura the Devil-Slayer, sainted after her death saving Emperor Irith the Fourth from Balephrax the Corruptor. Her bones are a relic of the Order of Yarruth in Sainted Hirata, the holy city. To suggest she is a corrupting spirit of some kind is most insulting!’
Semari raised her hands in surrender. ‘OK, OK, it’s not an ancestor thing. But there’s something going on – like, you’ve got something else going on with you. Like that tattoo. That thing moves, you can’t tell me that’s normal.’
Janaxia’s hand moved as if to protect the mark, a complicated black and scarlet whorl currently hidden beneath her robes.
Stathis was forced to agree. ‘You have to admit, your tattoo is unusual. When you joined, it was about an inch across. Now it’s at least four, and it moves - when we were doing that gig you got us, I saw it shift.’
‘Dickbag Von Poncington.’ Semari clarified, continuing to not help.
Janaxia’s accent, refined and cultured normally, now could have cut glass, every word and letter precise. ‘I think you mean Baronet Careth sen Chisault VIII, Lord of the Blueriver Passage. I can assure you his many, many, many less attractive attributes come from his mother’s side, quite unrelated to my own family. And quite what, Stathis, were you doing looking at a lady’s chest? I thought you had some manners!’
Stathis raised her hands defensively. ‘Hey, in my defence, it is a very nice chest. Very nicely formed, very well presented. And I didn’t realise quite how tightly cut those fancy dresses you wear can be. Red and black definitely suit you. But if you’re going to have a cut-out right in the middle, it will draw the eye somewhat. Especially when there’s a moving tattoo in the middle!’
The argument was cut short as a low moan filled the chamber, scrape of stone-on-stone echoing as the loot-covered sarcophagus lid moved, a desiccated hand appearing from the darkness inside, pushing back the massive stone, sending gold and gems scattering to the floor. The creature inside stood, a massive hulk of preserved flesh, wrapped in rune-scribed bandages, shadows oozing out from between the wrappings.
Everyone leapt into action, Parth diving aside, an arrow already in mid-flight, sinking into the bandages. Stathis drew her sword, runes along the blade bursting into light as she dodged a blow, landing an attack in answer, the substance of the beast tough enough to turn her strike. Semari backflipped, keeping herself out of reach as she catapulted herself through the air, throwing knives stabbing into the foe. Janaxia spoke, another word lost to thought, eldritch energy lashing forth, green witchlight scorching into the monster.
The thing gestured, dark mist coiling out from underneath the bandages, the dim shadow of horns appearing on its head. The bones of the creatures they’d already destroyed began to twitch and shake, pulling themselves back together again. Stathis glanced around, taking in her companions’ placement, trying to formulate tactics and strategy.
Janaxia’s fingers bent into an impossible shape, and then the world vanished. A piercing cold burnt the air, the underground tomb suddenly facing out on an infinite darkness, only broken by distant broken shards of light, shards of a broken sky slashed across the heavens. Something within the darkness moved and roiled, movement, distance impossible to judge, darkness shifting and boiling. A vague shape, too fast to perceive, brushed past Stathis, her hand burning as acid seared her fingers. The bodies melted back into dust, whatever energy was trying to reanimate them ceasing in the face of this onslaught, even as they snapped back into the real world.
They piled in, unleashing their attacks, slashing through the enchanted wrappings, the preserved flesh beneath fragile once they’d damaged the bandages enough to break its defences. With a sigh, the thing collapsed, body disintegrating to dust with a mournful sigh. After a few moments, all that was left was a pile of dust, the lingering scent of grave-rot, and a few gleaming gems.
Parth took several deep breaths, before throwing up, mercifully not onto any of the treasure. ‘Please do not do that without warning. Most unpleasant.’
‘See, that’s what we mean by creepy!’, Semari complained. ‘Real wizards summon snow storms, or walls of iron or prismatic light or whatever. They don’t dump people into a cold darkness outside the world, that also spits acid. It’s just weird. And really bad for my armour!’ Her breastplate was now etched with acid scars as well, material cracked and pitted.
Janaxia bent to pick one of the gems, examining it for flaws. Semari snatched it from her hand. ‘I get it. You’re seeking ancient treasure to resurrect your dark master from their deathless sleep! Like Othariss Runebound. Well, before she quit to run a shop.’
‘If I were to do that, I’d be sure to find expendable companions, and leave them to die before uncovering my plans. And yet, for reasons increasingly inexplicable, I keep saving you.’ Janaxia’s tone was still frosty.
‘OK, so tell us what’s going on, fake wizard. And don’t try to pretend to be a sorcerer either – if you were descended from a dragon or a god, you’d have told us! And you’ve got a family tree all the way back to the Imperium, so it’s not like you wouldn’t know if you had some weird shit in your bloodline. Catch!’
She tossed something at Janaxia, which crumpled as she caught it, water exploding over her, dripping down her robes. In retaliation, she launched a bolt of energy back at Semari, catching her on the shoulder, knocking her back.
‘Hey, easy, easy!’ Stathis jumped between them, trying to keep them both within sight, as they warily stared at each other. ‘What the hell are you doing, Semari? What was that?’
‘Just wanted to test you’re not undead. Or some underworld monster-thing. That was holy water from the font of Saint Shimura, acid to anything evil! Well, is she melting, Stathis? Or changing back to her true form?’
‘No, I most certainly am not. And what in the nine hells do you think splashing me with holy water from my own ancestor will do?’ Her eyes flashed dangerously, glowing with more than just reflected firelight.
‘See! Look at that! She’s going to change into a monster!’
Janaxia shook herself, water flicking out from her hair, fingers contorting into painful-looking twists.
‘Demon.’ Parth raised her voice.
‘I am not a demon!’ Janaxia yelled.
‘No, demon.’ Parth pointed. Stathis turned, as a monstrous shape stepped into the room, a hunched humanoid form, densely muscled body covered with scales, sharp talons extended. It howled, a bestial roar echoing around the small chamber. It brandished a harpoon, razor-sharp spines catching the firelight. Stathis raised her shield just in time, the point stabbing through, bare inches from her face. The thing yanked and pulled her forward, yanking her closer as she tried to pull back. A ghostly hand appeared and pulled on the straps that attached the shield to her arm, managing to unbuckle it just as the demon hauled with all its strength, the shield flying across the room.
‘Run!’ Stathis was last through the doorway as a spike of ice stabbed into her from behind, the cold burning her flesh, ice forming on the plates of her armour. A flurry of attacks flew back over her head, arrows, knives and bolts of energy keeping the thing distracted but without doing much visible damage, at least giving Stathis enough of an opening to turn and flee, ignoring the sounds of rage behind her. The rest of the group were already running, stopping to occasionally toss attacks behind themselves, running back through the dungeon, vaulting over the obstacles in the way, until the entranceway was in front of them, warm daylight beckoning them forward.
They tumbled out into the sunlight, Janaxia tumbling to the ground, gasping for breath. Stathis twisted the sealing glyph, the rock surface rumbling back into place and concealing the dungeon again, hopefully sealing the beast inside.
‘Gods, I hate demons. And that wasn’t in the scrying. Please tell me someone grabbed the loot.’ Everyone else held up hands filled with sparkling gems and jewellery. ‘Oh, thank the gods, it’s not been a complete waste of time. Could someone chuck me a healing potion, that thing was nasty. And Semari, apologise to Janaxia. She’s a fake wizard, but she’s our fake wizard.’
Semari mumbled something that was probably within vague distance of an apology. Considering that Janaxia was sprawled on the ground, sucking in deep gasps of air and unable to speak, it would do. Parth squatted down, poking her with a twig until she was composed enough to function again, trying to project poise and elegance. If she wasn’t still slightly soggy, and panting from the run, it might have been more effective.
‘Thank you, Semari.’ She pulled out a vial and handed it over.
Stathis drank, feeling her wounds heal and the deathly cold in her arm fading. ‘Now, Janaxia, what is your deal? You’re not a wizard, and your language skills are amazing, but it would be appreciated if you could tell us that you're not cursed or going to turn into something horrible.’
Janaxia snatched the twig from Parth, snapping it and tossing it into the undergrowth. ‘I made a deal with an ancient power. My powers are magical, but… a little different.’
Semari jumped back into the conversation. ‘An ancient power? Like, evil magic? Did it speak with tongues of fire, pronouncing doom upon all the races of the mortal world? Did it promise power of the ancient times in return for blood sacrifice? Wroth with prophecies of doom upon the mortal races?’’
‘No. It was a pattern, a spiral, an endless recursion, pure and endlessly, fractally perfect. A self-aware mathematical construct of…
She was cut off mid-explanation by Semari. ‘Maths? Like a magical accountant? You do super maths? That’s way lame!’
Stathis shrugged. ‘It’s better than her being possessed or something. So, weird magical maths, magical powers, no blood sacrifice or suchlike? You’re not going to start growing extra arms or teeth, or wanting to eat us or anything?’
‘Of course not! That would be most impolite, and Semari would be too stringy.’
That was probably a joke, although it was hard to tell. Janaxia’s hair wasn’t glowing anymore, although that might just be harder to see in the daylight. ‘Right, so now we’re all agreed, can we get out of here? I’d like to get some proper healing.’
Parth nodded. ‘Rest.’
They saddled up, and began to ride back to town, Stathis considering the events of the day. Despite the sudden appearance of the demon, they would probably turn a decent profit from the loot, and had gotten some resolution on Janaxia’s issues. All told, a successful day, although they should probably return at some point to deal with the demon.