This is Part III, Read Part I (Bastards… Barbarians) and Part II (Oaths and Old Magics) first!
The ether lantern was more than bright enough to fill the burial warren’s narrow entry chamber. It’s light spread over the smoothly carved floors and low ceiling, faltering only at the three open doorways that seeped cold from the deepest parts of the temple. Cen glided over the floor, urging the light forward with the lantern before her.
Oakby’s let the rifle hang at his side as he followed her towards the center doorway, mouth parted and eyes roaming around the chamber. He hesitated before the middle path. “How do you know to take this one?”
Cen shrugged a lazy shoulder, already on the steps leading down. The golden points of the tools in her belt glittered sharply in the cool ether light. “I don’t,” she answered and continued, hips rocking slowly back and forth as she drifted downward, taking each step slowly so the lantern’s light glided with her. Oakby followed in her wake, nostrils and mouth tight with displeasure.
“How do you know its safe?” He asked after the entry chamber vanished behind their small circle of lantern light. The burning ether’s pale glow only suggested the presence of walls, and it felt much more like the depths of a silent ocean, chill and dark in all directions. Cen’s gentle footfalls paused.
“I don’t,” Cen said, flicking the words back at him before continuing down with the same sure, hunting cat steps.
Oakby handled the silence for another set of breaths and then opened his mouth again. “But how—”
The door materialized from the darkness abruptly, a great stone thing barred with wood and carved with reliefs of battles as well as what looked to be—Oakby blushed and made a noise of disgust when he got close enough over her shoulder to see the lurid details. “These people, was it really all sex and death, en masse apparently?”
“And upheaval and conquest.” Cen drew her fingers up to the carving, skimming the scenes set in wide banners across the door. Her lips twitched over a bit of script set over her head, where most’s eyes would be. Cen hummed with interest and ignored Oakby’s affronted mutterings. The script was in Urahi, which Cen had never studied, but knew enough useful phrases from her work raiding their dead.
“For the unflinching,” Cen moved her lips around the words as she inspected the handle mechanism buried in a hollow at the center of the door. To even touch the smooth lock inside she had to insert her hand unseen into the mechanism fully past her wrist, and she did so slowly. As her fingers wrapped around the unseen metal handle, something clicked deep inside the carved portal. The mechanism cinched around her wrist so tightly she felt her pulse kick against it. Cen went as still as the stone around her.
Oakby swore and flinched back from the door as if it might bite him too. “Why would you— we could have gotten a worker, a local– ”
“Shhh,” Cen breathed, face inches from the carved surface. The vice was painfully tight around her wrist, the mechanism holding her fast with something sharp that she could feel the edges of. Cen imagined hidden blades caressing the skin where her pulse beat. But she still had the handle in her grip. Very slowly, Cen tightened her hold and pressed forward.
The door unlatched smoothly, releasing Cen’s hand and clicking open forward. She flexed her fingers and glanced to her sputtering captor.
“You do understand them, I’ll give you that – these vulgar barbarians who make a death traps.” Oakby snapped the ragged words, but for the first time there was something like regard in the words. His fingers curled tighter around the rifle. “Not that its a comfort.”
“Isn’t it? You have my word, not even the brave break oaths so deep under sacred stone.” Cen rolled her shoulders, easing away the tight panic at being caught so.
“I suppose– and there is something here. Look.” Oakby gingerly pressed the door open revealing a chamber much larger than what had come before. The walls, shadowed in the limited light from Cen’s lantern, were carved like a towering beehive, stone cells stretching to the ceiling in a gentle arch until they met above them. In each of the cells desiccated remains clothed in rotted leather and dull armor clutched weapons to their chests. As they stepped inside, their light reached farther revealing the bits of gold and silver glinting at hilt, crest, and and skeletal fingers. Oakby forgot his caution, eyes growing wide and bright as he hurried to the first of the cells and a solid, but gilded, spear there.
Cen let him go round the room’s edge, her attention elsewhere. The floor beneath her wrapped sandals sloped gradually towards a sunken, carved pit at the chamber’s center. Deep grooves led along the floor towards the indent, multiplying as they branched off their fellows, many rivers leading towards an ocean. Or a drain.
She followed the grooves’ path to the pit and looked down. Not deep, Cen might stand below and still peer over its edge at the rest of the burial chamber. At its low center, a sword of reddish metal lay flat and encased by an arcane mechanism. Bands of stone and gold in the likeness of angry serpents leashed the short sword to the floor at the center of the pit. Cen cocked her head and then slowly set the lantern on the ground, replacing it in her palm with one of her sharp golden tools from her belt.
“Oi, what are you doing? Stay away from my finds.” Oakby had the rifle half up as he jogged the distance between them. His alarm ebbed away when his eyes caught on the strangely captured weapon below. “What is that?”
“A sword for a warrior.” Cen struck smooth and quick as a snake. With her golden tool’s sharp point, she ripped Oakby’s shirt and skin open from hip to hip. Swift as she’d gutted him, Cen stepped back smoothly to keep the guts from splattering her hem and wasting blood. Oakby gasped and gaped like a fish, his hands twitching in front of his opened abdomen. He fell next to his bowels, still gurgling curses. From the vulgar words, he managed to snarl at her, “sacred stone — your word–”
“That I would not lay a finger on you. And I have not.” She fanned her clean fingers, still holding the blood-stained sigil tool. “Just this. The Urahi were specific on wording, any decent Captain who works in their valley should know that.”
Cen wasted no more words on him as he expired, more interested in his blood coursing through the grooves and into the pit. As the viscous red pooled around the bands of stone and gold, something clicked, like a weight being set. The sword’s prison folded back on itself, retreating back from the sword’s reddish metal and curling beneath it. The stone and gold reforming to create a small dais, complete with the serpent motif from before, on which the sword rested.
With careful, reverent steps Cen lowered herself into the pit and approached the sword. Cen allowed herself a purr of pleasure as her fingers curled comfortably around the sword’s grip.
Her mood was interrupted when above her the ceiling shivered, and Cen jerked her head up to watch motes of dust drift down in the light from the — sword. The lantern at the edge of the pit no longer glowed, for the sword had stolen the ether light and now shown bright enough to throw its own shadows against the burial cells.
Another tremor, and Cen quirked her lips, wondering how her men were managing Oakby’s leaderless company. There would be time for the rest of the temple’s ripe treasures later once Oakby’s men were successfully cowed and working for her, but for now, she wanted to see what the sword could do. Cen left the pit, chamber, and stairs with pleased rolling steps, a golden tool in one hand and a glowing sword in the other.