The Darkness That Hunts

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Chapter 23

“Looks like there’s a trapdoor ahead. Think we’re finally at the end,” announces Dace, who has taken the lead since he sees better in the dark than any of us. I peer over his shoulder and make out what appears to be a ladder secured to the wall by rotted rope that loops around two metal hooks. Zakk’s witchlight curls up the ladder’s rungs to reveal a square hatch chiseled from the low ceiling. Beyond the ladder the tunnel has collapsed in on itself--a dead end.

Dace scampers up the worn rungs like a squirrel. He taps the hatch, testing the weight holding it closed. I then hear him grunt as he sets his shoulder along the door and pushes against it. It takes a few tries but the trapdoor flips open.

Dirt rains down on us and dust chokes the air. I cough and cover my mouth. My throat burns and my eyes water. Dry, foul air flares out from the open hatch and contaminates the tunnel with noxious fumes. Once the dust settles, Dace’s head disappears into the square of darkness. He gives the signal that it’s clear and disappears. I follow next and the rungs’ splintered wood scrapes my palms. There is a moment of blinding darkness and then I feel Dace’s small hand gripping my elbow and I stumble inside a room so dim it’s little better than the hole I crawled up through. It appears to be round with strange rectangular recesses chiseled into the wall and stuffed with lumpy shrouds. I squint, trying to make out what could possibly be stored here but the gloom is too thick.

Zakk is the last through and I hear a whispered word. One of his tattoos glimmers on his skin and another globe of light flares to life. My breath catches as the chamber blossoms to sharp relief. Stacked floor to ceiling in the rectangular alcoves are perfectly preserved bodies like Egyptian mummies; females on one side, male on the other. They are dressed like warriors snatched from different time periods. I recognize a helmet of a samurai covering a female mummy. A naginata much like Zakk’s rests in her folded hands. Another corpse has dry golden hair that flows over broad masculine shoulders and Viking-style regalia. Yet another mummy is adorned in the tribal vestments of an ancient West African warrior. Aside from the trap door in the floor, there doesn’t appear to be an exit.

“What is this place?” Kam whispers. He crouches at the lowest level and stares at a mummy wearing desert camouflage. It grips a dagger in its right hand, and an assault rifle in its left.

The butt of Zakk’s naginata thumps as he circles the burial chamber. He gives a cursory glance to the bodies but most of his focus follows a strange pattern etched into the polished marble floor. I lift my foot to uncover some kind of stylized writing and tiny strips of what looks to be charred paper.

“If I had to hazard a guess,” Zakk begins cautiously, “I’d say this barrow is a resurrection sanctum and those bodies are--”

Dace shrieks and there is a scuffle of movement to my far right. I whirl to find one of the mummies, this one a Maori warrior, has its hand locked around Dace’s left wrist. A black cloud engulfs Dace’s hand all the way up his forearm. He struggles against the corpse’s grip but can’t seem to break its hold.

To my horror, the longer the mummy holds Dace, the more animated it becomes. Dark curly hair rustles as it turns its head toward its prey. Its eyelids part to reveal a black abyss, a gaze empty of all emotion except unending hunger.

Dace collapses and whimpers. I wonder why he doesn’t reach for his chakram. I wonder why I can’t seem to move. Why Kamiron, who is the closest, isn’t at his friend’s side.

A series of deep groans echo inside the burial chamber and the Maori warrior starts to tremble. I feel a chill, sharp and swift, uncoil within the confines of the resurrection sanctum and the mummy at my side, the samurai woman, begins to twitch. Other bodies shake and a tremor causes the strange markings on the floor to rattle and quiver.

“Shari--do something!” Zakk gasps. Numerous tattoos spark in response to the power flaring across the chamber, lighting up Zakk’s skin beneath his aketon.

“What am I supposed to do?”

The naginata falls to the ground as the corpse of the samurai sits up as much as the low ceiling of the alcove will allow. Dace wheezes and his eyelids flutter as he battles to remain conscious. The black cloud has crawled up to his elbow. The Maori has a sandaled foot on the ground.

I yank an arrow from the air. It pulsates a russet orange. Just holding it in my hand seems to break my paralysis and I charge the Maori, intending to stab the arrow into its hand and force it to release Dace, but as soon as my arrow plunges into the mummy’s wrist, a brief arc of energy severs the hand from the rest of the body.

The Maori does not register any pain, but the fathomless eyes turn to me and I find the abyss waiting. Hunger, endless, all-consuming. Its sense of awareness sharpens and the Maori drags itself from its alcove.

Its severed hand is still locked around Dace whose complexion has turned an alarming shade of green. Do I protect myself from the Maori’s impending attack, or get that hand off Dace?

I adjust my grip on my arrow and stab the hand leeching the life from Dace. To my surprise, the arrow sinks into the rogue hand and disappears like I’ve dropped it in quicksand. There is no burst of light, no arcane animation. The hand just falls to the ground near the Maori’s feet. The undead warrior staggers back as if it has received a blow. I don’t question its reaction. Digging my fingers into Dace’s collar, I drag him towards the center of the room where Zakk stands.

Metal clashes against metal as Kamiron deflects the blow of the Marine’s dagger. It uses its dagger slowly, but each attack is precise and backed by preternatural strength. It doesn’t fire the assault rifle, can’t seem to recall how, but instead uses it like a cudgel.

Kam holds his own against his adversary, but his eyes can’t help but dart to the mummies closing in on us. Their slackened features and empty black eyes lock on us with steadfast purpose. I feel their hunger clawing at me; hunger and an aching loneliness that must consume in order to be satiated. A well of emotions swells around me and I stagger beneath the tremendous onslaught.

Hunger, emptiness.

Anger, regret.

Desire, jealousy.

Vitality, need.

Hunger.

“Shari, stop it! Why are you--” Kamiron is forced to parry the spear thrust from the African warrior and block the butt of the Marine’s assault rifle. I glance down, startled to find myself on my knees, muttering about hunger and clawing at the floor like a mad woman. My nails are broken and streaks of blood mar the floor.

Zakk’s tattoos flash and crackle and I realize he’s been chanting some kind of spell. Fear makes his hazel eyes wide and voice tremble but then he spots me, or more precisely the bloody spot where I tried to gouge the marble floor. Zakk shifts, nudging me aside with his foot. A flash of movement and he’s cut his palm on his naginata and he crouches, smearing his blood on top of mine. Beneath his fingers, a word etched into the ground glows a coagulated yellow and I’m finally able to understand the cantrip Zakk’s been chanting. His voice, pitched low and soothing, as if he hums a lullaby to an upset, wailing baby, recites:

“Sleep, sleep my warriors of old

Sleep and let time unfold.

Let darkness surround you,

Let peaceful rest bind you,

Sleep, sleep noble fighters of old.”

Our adversaries stop mid-stride. The tide of hunger and loneliness I sensed a moment before ebbs. Joints crack, feet shuffle and weapons scrape the marble as the mummies climb back into their alcoves. The chill of undeath slithers across our ankles and then sinks back into the floor. Around us all falls still. The corpses look exactly as they did when we first entered.

Except the Maori warrior’s hand still rests on the ground.

Fatigue takes over and Zakk collapses. Kamiron’s sledgehammer clatters to the ground. I press my cheek against the cool marble and wait for my heart to settle. For a moment all we can do is lie there and listen to Dace’s semiconscious whimpers bounce off the resurrection sanctum’s domed ceiling. Adrenaline leaks out of my split and ruined fingernails but any pain from my injuries is oddly muted. I can’t decide whether or not that’s comforting.

Eventually strength returns and my heart starts to beat normally. I don’t trust myself enough to stand so I crawl over to Dace. A black handprint festers across his wrist. His complexion is no longer green, but the blood hasn’t returned and his lips are as blue as frost.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“The revenant ate some of his life force,” Zakk answers. He winces and uses his naginata to rise. “I can’t heal that. Nothing but time and rest can restore what was stolen.”

Kam reaches out a hand to help me to my feet. “Neither of which we can afford.”

Zakk grunts in acquiesce and squats. With a practiced hand he reaches out as if to gently prod Dace awake, but instead slaps the glasses off Dace’s face. I wince at the sound. Dace’s eyes flutter open. His skewed frames dangle off his nose. It’d be comical if not for the deep bruises under Dace’s eyes and the haunted cast to his gaze.

“Wha . . .?”

Zakk’s lips thin into a grim line and I realize my ordinarily mild-mannered friend is furious. “You’re an idiot, you know that? You almost got us killed!”

Zakk shoves him and Dace recoils. I move to stop them but Kam places a hand on my shoulder. “He keeps it in too much. He needs to let it out,” he whispers.

“I didn’t mean to,” Dace defends. “How was I to know--?”

“--Not to touch some dead guy laying in a mysterious burial chamber?” Zakk doesn’t yell but his voice is like the crack of a bullwhip. The painful sting of a dozen hornets digs into my skin. I swat at my arms as if that will stop the phantom insects’ bites. From Kamiron’s flinches, I take it he feels them too.

“Look, I’m sorry, okay?” Dace adjusts his crooked glasses and then stares at the black handprint on his wrist and then at the Maori’s severed hand.

“Yeah--serves you right. He took a pretty big chunk out of you and you’ll just have to deal with the pain and weakness.”

In the blink of an eye, one of Dace’s chakram leaps to his hand and blue flames sizzle along the curved blade. Dace flicks his wrist and the chakram arcs towards the hand. In seconds the appendage is black ash and the chakram is speeding back.

“You done, Gandalf?” Dace’s voice is cold as he returns his weapon to its holster but I sense the deep fatigue behind his gruff manner.

“Not yet.” Zakk paces the resurrection chamber, the butt of his naginata stabbing the floor. “What possessed you to be so stupid?”

Dace’s gaze drifts to the Maori. Its looks peaceful in its rest, but I can’t help the shudder that goes through me when I remember its ravenous emptiness.

“It’s wearing a shark tooth necklace.”

I spot it at the Maori’s throat. A polished tooth nestled by a faded leather cord. My stomach clenches and I can understand Zakk’s anger. “You risked our lives for a necklace?” I shriek. Kamiron’s fingers dig into my shoulder in firm reproach.

Dace stares at the necklace as if committing it to memory. His throat works but no sound comes out.

“It looks like hers, doesn’t it?” Kamiron whispers.

Dace dips his chin. “I saw it and I just remembered . . . how much she loved that thing. It was a cheap gimmicky trinket, you know from a tourist shop when we . . .” His throat works again. “I just had to buy it for her. I think she liked it so much because it came from me.”

The stinging hornets stop stabbing my arms and Zakk’s anger burns itself out as abruptly as it appeared. “I didn’t notice until just now,” Zakk admits and not without a dose of shame. I feel like I’m missing something ridiculously obvious.

“My mother.” Dace’s voice cracks and he clears it behind a fist. “She had breast cancer. She died three years ago.”

The bottom drops out. “I’m--”

“Forget it. Z’s right--I shouldn’t have been so stupid. I just felt like she was . . . here. For a second.” Dace winces and stands. He wobbles on his feet and his knees knock but he remains upright. Sweat curls the blond strands plastered to his forehead. “So these things are zombies?”

“Revenants,” Zakk corrects. He rips the sleeve from his shirt and ties it around his palm. “The closest thing to a zombie here are ghouls.”

“Aren’t they the same thing?” Kamiron’s stormy gaze roams the walls as he and Dace search for a way out.

“They are in a sense,” Zakk concedes. “But ghouls are animated corpses that hunger for flesh, and require constant attention and power from a necromancer. It takes extreme amounts of energy to raise even a handful of ghouls, and they’re relatively dumb. Revenants on the other hand--well, you saw them. They’re intelligent, they’re trained fighters, they hunger for vitality instead of flesh, and rise with just a touch.”

“Any other good news?” Kamiron snorts.

“Well, then there are the wights.”

Wights?” he groans.

Zakk manages a bleak smile. “Think skeletons. Smarter than ghouls but they don’t lust for vitality or flesh. I’d rather run into them than a ghoul or anymore revenants.”

“Great.” Dace nods to our sleeping warriors. “How’d you stop them?”

“Shari did, actually.”

I blink, startled. “I did?”

“My spell wasn’t working despite the energy I poured into the incantation, but then I saw what you were digging at.” He gestures to our blood coating the floor. “That is a necromantic word of power: ‘unquenchable hunger.’ I needed to block that power to lull them back to sleep.”

“Just what were you doing, muttering about hunger and loneliness and anger?” Kamiron nods to my ruined fingernails. “Why’d you do that to your hands?”

To keep from facing the guys, I stare at the words seared into the marble, words that I can’t read but are fragments of a dark spell. “Didn’t realize what I was doing.”

“I think you were in a trance.” Zakk takes my hands and studies my bloody nails. “You were channeling their desires and that was what guided my actions. You saved us.” Cool blankets me. There is no pain. Zakk washes away the blood with his waterskin and I see my nails have healed.

Embarrassed, I watch Dace. He avoids the bodies but presses his hands against the curved expanse of wall. “Here’s the exit. Think there are more of those revenant things?”

“Undoubtedly.”

Dace pushes and the wall cracks. Screeching, it scrapes across the marble. I brace myself, expecting another burial chamber, but instead cool air that smells of old soil and moss scrambles inside. Dace pokes his head out and takes a long look left, then right, then left again.

“All clear?” Kamiron prompts when Dace doesn’t speak.

“You’re not gonna believe this.”

We rush to the exit and peer out. Dozens of barrows curve out of the ground like warts. Some are made of sandy earth, others of stone; most are a combination of the two. Tendrils of fog slither between the burial mounds in a ribbon of silver. Beyond the barrows stretches a thick wall. Gargoyles and stone demons perch upon crenels or dangle along parapets. Beyond that rises a vast city. A fain sheen coats its surface and the city gleams the white of moonlight over snow. The strange glow pulsates over the city and up to a massive structure that dominates the skyline in a plethora of odd angles and sharp planes. Something about its design makes me feel nauseous.

I place a hand to my curdling stomach and ignore the buzzing sensation I get when I stare too long. “The Necropolis.”

“Necropolis?”

I turn away and gaze beyond the barrows. I can barely make out the fringes of the Onyx to the east. North I can see the boarder of the Hallow Wastes. In that direction lies the crater where Andhakar has built his wasp-like home. I’d rather be in the court of The Darkness-That-Hunts than in the city of the dead. I turn towards the guys’ expectant faces.

“This region is the Lost.” I motion to the expanse of barrows that rise up through the sand like breaking waves. “Named for the lost corpses interred here. The revenants and other such creatures.” I point to the glowing white city. “That’s the Necropolis, a giant metropolis of tombs. It is where the undead stay. Aterians avoid that place, those who are not necromancers.”

Kamiron chews the corner of his lip. “Sounds like a place we should avoid. We can go back to the tunnels--unless . . .” He glances at me and then at the Necropolis. “Unless there’s a tether in there?”

Bitterness tastes like acid against my tongue. “I’d be able to answer that if you hadn’t bartered away my map.” Their shamed expressions mollify me. I sigh. “I don’t know. I don’t know how to find the tethers without the map.”

My gaze drifts to our bleak surroundings and the burial mounds growing from the translucent sand.

“It’s never been the map, Shari. It’s always been you,” Zakk reassures. “Inside you.”

My look is skeptical.

“You said before that it was a feeling, right?” Dace offers.

“A buzzing when my hand roamed over the map.”

“So look for that feeling.” Kamiron gestures at my longbow. “Use your weapon.”

This startles me but Zakk seems to catch on. “Dousing,” he whispers. “Actually, that could work--help her focus her mind.”

I have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s Vayu that comes to my rescue.

Grip the limb of your longbow.

I get the mental image of me, my longbow held loosely in my right hand, the other limb lightly skimming the ivory sand. I follow suit and the boys scurry out of my way so that I have room to work.

Now, Vayu instructs, turn in a circle, slowly. Let your mind grow vacant. Feel the connection of your weapon. Search for that sensation that you felt at the verge of the Onyx. The ground is your compass, the sand the worn vellum of the map.

Vayu’s voice is clear and hypnotic, shifting and swirling like autumn breezes laden with the scent of pumpkin, leaves and cinnamon. The longbow grows warm against my palm as my feet shuffle in the sand. I follow Vayu’s instructions; my attention spirals inward. My toes point towards the Onyx . . .

Nothing.

I keep moving, hunting for the same sensation I had when I studied Divine’s map. The Hollow Wastes . . . Muted. Something beyond there--in the Sepulcher.

But I already knew that.

Turning, my longbow gives a steady hum, it buzzes in my palm as if it’s a live wire. My stomach curls in on itself and I have to fight the urge to vomit. I lift my lashes, suddenly aware that I’d nearly shut my eyes during my trance.

“Think you jinxed us, Kam,” Zakk sighs.

A faint copper glow streams out of the limb of my bow and flows in beads directly towards the Necropolis.
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