Fortunately, the guide knew his way. He’d proven himself several times over before the actual climb up the mountain had even begun. With extensive knowledge of the region and the mountain, he had been the only and best choice for a guide.
But that hadn’t stopped Doran and Talon from treating him like a slave.
Mahtah clung to a cliff ledge with ease. Her dusty gray skin turned blue in the cloudless moonlight. She used her free hand to adjust the ponytail out of her face, tucking midnight hair into her hood. She looked up at the group making its way over the ledge. The guide stood above them, monitoring each member’s climb. Doran reached the top first, a husky pile of muscle, big and outlandishly strong. Talon slithered up behind him, wiry and wild, a skilled tactician and killer. Both villains were untrustworthy, pale and reckless, but more successful than any others Mahtah had ever worked with before. After they were both up, the guide turned his eyes to Mahtah.
Mahtah hanged there for a few moments more, taking in the view. The moonlit valley below shined with life from a village nestled into the base of the mountain. The northern desert stretched out beyond the valley, flushed with pale moonlight, the place this journey had started. The guide had met them in a tavern. So friendly. Ultimately accommodating.
Mahtah sighed as she guessed this would not end well for him.
“Are you coming, Mahtah?” the guide said, offering a hand to her. She looked up, ignored his hand, and with perfectly tuned muscles, hoisted herself up onto the cliff. A chill mountain breeze scattered Mahtah’s robes for a moment before allowing them to settle about her figure.
She hid everything from sight. All of her blades. All of her intentions. From her allies and her enemies.
Mahtah pulled her ponytail back out of her hood and regarded the tall doors to the shrine. The large flat landing on the mountain peak was clean and well-maintained. Mostly empty, there were supplies near the double doors. Barrels and boxes, rolled up camping equipment as well as some folded up contraptions that Mahtah couldn’t make out.
The double doors loomed as an icon over the mountain landing, plain, simple wooden doors with iron framing.
“Is it open?” Doran asked.
“Not yet,” said the guide. “It is locked for safe keeping. The Guide Guild trains us to lock and unlock the shrine.”
“Is there treasure in there?” Talon spat, always informal, always rude.
The guide laughed. “I’m afraid not, Master Talon. Only a shrine.”
“A shrine worth a prince’s ransom?”
The guide shook his head, seeming unaware of the dark nature of his charges. “Please, Master Talon. This is a place of worship. Of pilgrimage. The most devout of us come to pay respects to the race that is no more. We pray to the gods that the magic remain hidden and unknown. We do not come here to relish in riches. Please do not expect to see something of monetary value here.”
Doran snorted. “We know what we’re looking for.”
Now the guide took offense. Suddenly, he appeared unsure. “And what is that, may I ask?”
Mahtah stepped in between the guide and her partners. “It’s nothing really, my guide. My friends are simply eager to know more of our cloudy history.”
“Do you believe you will find secrets about the race that is no more?” the guide asked.
“You mean the Na’Jai?” Mahtah asked.
“Yes. They were not human,” the guide warned. “Not like you and me. You may not want to know anything about them in the end.”
Mahtah looked down at her hands. She looked to the guide, then Doran and Talon in turn. There were four people on the mountain landing and one of them did not look like the others.
Talon interrupted Mahtah’s introspection. “We’ll tell you want we want to know,” she squawked.
“Talon! Stop that!” Mahtah snapped.
Talon threw her a narrow-eyed sneer.
“Time to open the shrine,” Doran boomed. “I’m tired of waiting.”
The guide took a slow step toward the shrine. Mahtah noticed he moved more toward the supplies than the doors. The man began to stammer.
“I haven’t opened the door in close to a year. I hope I can recall the proper sequence of movements. The door is fixed with deadly traps.”
Mahtah sighed silently. The guide was stalling.
Talon’s eye flashed. She ran a sultry hand down her body and shivered. “Traps! Do not tell us again that there is no treasure here.”
“Nobody traps something that isn’t worth something,” Doran added.
The guide chuckled nervously, taking more steps, veering slightly toward the supplies. “Perhaps it is not a good idea to open the shrine. I do believe that we may be better off returning to the village and viewing the smaller shrine down there instead.”
Doran shook his head. “No, no. We’ve climbed all this way. The big shrine is what we want.”
“Calm down, Doran,” Mahtah said. They wouldn’t get into the shrine without this guide, and Doran and Talon were hair trigger maniacs.
Doran looked at Mahtah. He spoke, as always, with measured logic. “But we climbed all the way up here.”
“I understand.” She stared hard at him. “Just calm down.”
“Master Mahtah,” the guide begged. “May we please return to the village? I’m afraid I do not feel entirely comfortable with…”
“This is tedious,” Talon complained. She slid a wicked black blade out from under her clothing. The blade curved like an eagle’s talon.
“Talon!” Mahtah snapped.
“Let us in the shrine, now.”
The guide started backing up quickly, toward the doors. “I don’t think… I’m afraid…”
Talon stalked the man with a toothy, jagged smile. “Come on then. Open it up.”
The guide took a breath. He locked onto something with his eyes in the pile of supplies. “No!” he yelled. The guide snatched a folded-up contraption and then barreled into Talon, who fell to the ground, caught off guard. Doran and Mahtah watched him run toward the cliff edge.
“What are you doing?” Doran asked calmly.
The guide ignored his question, instead jumping straight off the cliff into the air. He threw open his bundle, which expanded into a device that allowed him to glide through the air. He hung on for dear life, but he descended away from them at an easy clip.
“Nobody goes back on an agreement with me,” Doran grumped. He pulled a battleax out of his robes and went to the cliff edge. “This’ll be an easy shot.”
Doran pulled the axe back behind his head, aiming. The gliding machine was large enough to easily lock in on. Mahtah joined him on the ledge.
“Idiot,” she said softly. If he had stayed there, she would have protected him. “Now we know why the people of this village are known cowards. Uppity little bastard.”
“Ready for this?” Doran asked, clearly enjoying himself.
“You are an excellent thrower,” Talon said, joining the other two.
Doran tracked the guide for another moment before letting the axe fly, end over end. It flipped through the air, arcing just perfectly to shred the gliding machine. The contraption crumbled about the guide, who then plummeted into the darkness.
“Sad,” Mahtah breathed.
“What’s sad is we can’t get in this door now,” Doran grumped.
“Not so fast,” Talon put in. She scurried over to the double doors. “I’m quite good at opening things. Remember when we robbed the caravan with the Rebel Prince’s chests of gold? That was a haul. And I picked those locks without even trying.”
“I remember that,” Mahtah said grimly. “Still, I don’t consider myself a lowlife like you two.”
Doran turned an unimpressed look on Mahtah. “Are you not a lowlife right now?”
Doran shook his head. “You’d be better if you weren’t so damned elitist.”
They fell quiet as Talon unrolled a pack on the ground. She regarded her collection of lock pick tools with love. She looked back and forth from the door to the tools, trying to figure out how to approach the lock. Eventually, she chose an array of tools, little metal picks and hooks. She examined the large keyhole situated under the door handle.
“It can’t possibly be this simple,” she muttered.
“Then it probably isn’t,” Doran advised.
With deft fingers, Talon slipped her tools into the keyhole, moving and prodding, finding that sweet spot that would align all of the tumblers inside. The sound of something metal clunking inside the door rang out. Talon squealed with excitement.
“I almost…” She twisted his tools into the keyhole, seeming to require all her strength to do so. She twisted her whole body to move the mechanism until.
Talon screamed out and her body lit up like a pyre.
“Hey!” Doran yelled. “Watch out!” He pushed Mahtah away from him hard as Talon’s body exploded from the door. The fireball that used to be their partner clipped Doran’s side, sending him reeling toward the cliff ledge.
Mahtah fell to the ground, sprawling from Doran’s strength. She rolled to a stop just in time to see Doran go spinning away over the ledge. Mahtah scrambled to her feet, assessing the scene. The double doors of the shrine had been opened by Talon’s tripping of the trap. A large scorch mark adorned the area around the door handle and the doors creaked opened slightly. Inside, Mahtah could see fires surrounding the shrine. On an altar sat a plain golden box shining amidst the flames. Mahtah’s eyes flashed with delight.
“Mahtah!” cried Doran.
Mahtah’s head snapped around toward Doran’s voice. She ran to the cliff edge, peered over. Ten feet down, his right hand jammed into a crack, hanged Doran. The left half of his face was burned nearly off.
“I’ll look for something to hoist you up!”
She turned and ran toward the shrine. She tore up all but one of the gliding machines and all of the tents. She began pulling strips of fabric and tying them together. But the shine and the box drew her attention hard. She placed the fabric down and slowly entered the shrine, careful not to touch the doors.
The inside smelled of spices and incense. Tall braziers lit up the domed ceiling while shorter flames lit up the altar. It was a simple thing; merely a stone slab with a golden box on top. The box was precisely the size of a scroll. Mahtah found that the box was not locked. She gently opened it, removed the ancient scroll. She pulled the blank wax seal off the parchment and unrolled it. She read the words quickly. Her eyes went wide. She winced.
As the scroll revealed far too much, the mountain rumbled.
“Oh no,” Mahtah breathed. She turned and took off for the door. The entire doorway burst into flame. Mahtah lithely slipped through the opening, avoiding being burned. She tripped as the mountain rumbled once more, sending her to the ground again. She turned just in time to watch the shrine cave in on itself. After a moment, she gathered herself and stood up. She slipped the scroll into her robes.
Then, as she realized she left Doran to hang there on the cliff face, she ran to the edge. But Doran was gone. Only his severed hand remained in the crack, a streak of blood the only trail to his fate. Feeling guilty, Mahtah sat back on her behind, taking a deep cold breath.
She pulled the scroll out of her robes once again, reading it for a second and then a third time. Tears welled up and rolled down her cheeks, freezing solid on her dusky skin. She held the scroll tight to her chest as she stood up. She walked slowly over to the burning double doors of the ruined shrine.
“Finally, some answers,” she whispered, drowned out by the sound of the mountain crumbling. She held the scroll into the fire, catching the old parchment easily.