“Whatever they’re after, we have to get it before they do,” I whispered, looking at where the Temple assassin had disappeared to before I looked over the city again. There had to be some path that led lower, a doorway that would take them to a hidden part of the city. Whatever the Priest was after was more than just gold...
“Caeli, you realise we have an entire city on our hands. It won’t be easy to find, and we don’t even know what it is.” Vince pointed out, I shook my head.
“Whatever it is... it has to be below. If the Priest wants it, then it’s probably sacred to this place, which means it would have been hidden from commoners eyes. Hidden somewhere where only the...” I trailed off. “The temple on the other side, it has a hole under it, can you see it?”
“Yeah,” Nylah said, it was all the confirmation I needed to know I wasn’t seeing things.
“It’s got to be down there,” I said, Vince nodded slowly as I tried to stop my body from shaking. The movement was no longer restricted to my hands, it was everywhere.
“Alright kid, anything else?” he asked, I looked around the city once more. It was too pristine to be centuries abandoned.
“This city, it was still inhabited when Fawcett came,” I said with confidence. It made sense.
“The Incas died out-”
“Fawcett wrote ‘the history that you forced upon them’, the public. This city was maintained, if it was abandoned centuries ago, then it would be falling to pieces. This is nowhere near destroyed enough to have been out of commission for four hundred years.” I said as I looked over the city, my realisation made my gut tighten.
“Where are they then? What happened?” Nylah asked, I had a rough idea, but I didn’t want to say it out loud. I could be wrong.
“I assume we’re going to find out, but we need to focus on the issue at hand,” Syrus stated, saving me from having to answer the question.
“How did they get here before us?” Vince asked next. I was going to answer what I thought had happened, but Syrus got in before me.
“They knew that we were coming here, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve been here since the auction, biding their time, getting comfortable, finding the best places to hide. They knew where the statue was and that Caeli would find another one. They knew where it led to, here.” He drawled, it was exactly what I thought. Maybe he wasn’t as slow as I thought he was...
I didn’t give him enough credit.
“We should keep moving,” he said next, snapping me back to reality.
“Down there, there’s a path going straight to the temple but should be hidden enough, so we don’t get caught,” Nylah said as my head lightened. I had to ignore the feeling, I couldn’t afford to pass out now. While we were trapped underground with an unknown number of assassins.
“Let’s go then,” Syrus said, no hesitation as he moved down to the ground level of the city. He led us down, and I fell to the back of the group again. Not one of them seemed to notice that I was moving slower than usual, that my body was fighting against me as we got closer to the temple. The buzzing had overtaken my senses, it was everywhere in my body at once. It was making me feel weak and wrong.
I took a deep breath, I had to keep focused until we got to the tunnel. I kept my gun in my holster and instead took out my dagger. I may not be able to shoot straight, but my grip was as tight as ever on the handle of my favourite weapon. I could do more damage with the blade than with a gun anyway, in a more silent way.
“This place is amazing...” Nylah whispered as we reached the temple, taking one last look around before we entered the tunnel. As soon as I did a searing pain hit me in the stomach. Danger was imminent, and I was far too focused on my hands, shaking like I was forcing it.
Sy continued to lead us down the tunnel which luckily had a stairway inside, which kept going further down into the earth. The air was becoming stale as we did so, and a stench of something horrible, of death, hit me in the nose. Whatever awaited us at the bottom of the staircase wouldn’t be good.
The only confirmation I needed on that front was when Syrus stumbled upon the first body.
Material hung to the bones of the corpse, patches of hair visible on their head, but there was no weapon in sight. This person had been unarmed when they were murdered, and I knew that was the cause of death because of the shattered skull. They had been shot.
“This does not bode well,” I stated as the buzzing in my veins changed to a thrumming, my heart beating so loud that I could barely hear the others talking above it. My head was becoming lighter and lighter, we had to pick up speed before I became useless to them.
“Dead bodies never do,” Vince replied, but as I looked to him, I saw his eyes weren’t focused on the body we had found... it was on the others scattered down the staircase.
“Shit,” I whispered, putting a hand against the wall.
“Let’s find out where this goes,” Syrus stated simply before he began walking again, Nylah followed, and Vince was close behind. I took a second after I stumbled into the wall to catch my breath and re-centre myself. I then pushed myself up and continued down the stairs behind the others.
The stairs eventually led us to an open room where three passages forked away in different directions. Although I took them in quickly, my focus was on the pile of bodies against the walls.
“They killed the children...” I whispered as I saw bodies the size of three or four-year-olds on the tops of the piles. Who did this? Why did they do this?
“Who could do this to an entire city? Who could kill all the children?” Syrus sounded as horrified by the thought of killing children as I was... but I knew the answer to his question.
“The Temple,” I said since I was sure of it now.
“What?” Nylah asked. I turned away from the bodies to look at the others.
“The Temple, under orders from the Pope. This happened after Fawcett, this happened because he sent that letter. This happened because this very city threatened the written history, the conquest wouldn’t be complete until this city was destroyed and all of its inhabitants with it. Fawcett was never seen again, probably because he’s down here in one of these piles. But they were all protecting something, willing to sacrifice their children for it...” I explained, but I had no clue what they would have been protecting. What they would sacrifice toddlers to keep safe...
Suddenly there was the sound of clapping from behind me, and I turned to see someone walking out from the shadows. They were wearing a Temple cloak, I couldn’t see their face, but I could take a stab at who it was.
“Well done Caeli, you figured it out. Like always...” Leopold said with a smirk on his face. As he spoke the room filled with more light, more assassins, each with a lamp on their belts. “That audience with the Priest you wanted, you got it. The small catch is that you have to be restrained.” He said. As he spoke, I looked around and saw at least twenty assassins. Usually, I would plan a way out, but instead, I was trying to ignore the pounding in my head and the feeling that my skin was on fire.
“Twenty might be overkill, there is only four of us.” I pointed out, trying to lighten the mood as the assassins circled us. Breathing was now starting to become harder than it should have been, and my body was sweating.
“How are you feeling, Caeli? The Priest said you might be feeling a little off, said that we should use it to our advantage.” Leopold stated, and I took another deep, shaky breath.
“Caeli...” I turned to look at Ny who had just spoken my name in a worried tone, the assassins had completely circled us in. The Dawsons and Vince were all facing different directions, protecting each other’s backs, but it meant none of them were keeping an eye on me.
When I looked back to Leopold, he was an arm’s length away from me, he was unarmed as he lunged at me, so I quickly placed my dagger against his throat. He grabbed my shoulders and moved to hold me upright, almost like he was hugging me.
“You should rest, Caeli, you look tired.” He said as my breath continued shaking, I could cut his throat now... “kill me, and they’re all dead.” He told me like I didn’t already know. The blade fell from my grasp. I couldn’t save them, I couldn’t keep us all safe...
I couldn’t get any air into my lungs. I couldn’t be having a panic attack, I just couldn’t. But I was. I gripped onto Leopold’s shoulders as my legs threatened to give way. Through my faulty breathing, I realised what I was doing and pushed away from his grasp, but it caused me to stumble and hit the ground. I still couldn’t breathe, my head still throbbing and my body still on fire.
“They haven’t even noticed,” Leopold whispered as I tried to keep myself propped up on my forearms. Tears slipped down my cheeks as I realised I had failed them, that I couldn’t save them, couldn’t protect them. I was useless.
My arms slipped out from under me, and my head hit the stone. Leopold was hovering over me, but I closed my eyes so I couldn’t see him. I heard someone calling my name out, possibly Syrus, but my mind went blank before I could be sure.