The Forgotten Temple

Kaine and Nightshade arrived first. One instant, they were in the Captain’s Quarters aboard Freedom, and the next, they were in a tomb, but not the tomb of A’Etenkah. Long ago, the companions had designed a secret language comprised of hand signals and facial expressions, allowing them to communicate with each other secretly. When they were discussing their predicament in the captain’s cabin, they had used their sign language to discuss their real plan in secret.

So instead of the Tomb of A’Etenkah, they were actually in one of their hideouts, a tomb deep in the volcanic wastes that covered the ancient Ahriman Empire. Hubris led to the destruction of that empire in a great volcanic explosion known as the Desecration hundreds of years ago, and now the once proud country was nothing but volcanic rock, shards of obsidian glass, and rivers of lava flowing into molten lakes. Demons roamed freely here, and the sky continued to rain ash and fire, centuries after it was destroyed.

The entire region was avoided by all but the most foolhardy explorers, which is how the companions first found this forgotten temple, many years ago. Unlike almost everything else in this hellish place, the temple was left almost completely untouched. Whatever long, forgotten god once held sway here continued to protect its domain. When the companions found it, they cleaned it up, and repaired what little damage it had suffered. They also left an offering of gold and gems for the deity. In return, it continued to protect the place both from scrying eyes and the demons that howled outside.

Kaine and Nightshade only had a moment to look around before Trick appeared next to them. “Do you think they fell for it?” he asked them.

Kaine replied, “Yeah. I doubt they could see our hand signals, but even if they could, they wouldn’t know what they meant. The altar here is still giving off that faint glow, and the sarcophagus is undisturbed, so I assume this place is still protected.”

“Well, that’s good,” said Trick. “I don’t think I could handle any more surprises today.”

“Me either,” said Nightshade. “Speaking of, what’s taking them so long?”

Her question was answered a few heartbeats later, when Sophia and Runt appeared. “I took us to the Tomb of A’Etenkah first,” she said. “If they try to trace our teleport trails, they’ll think we all went there.”

“Clever,” said Kaine. “The temple here will shield us, but it was smart to give them a false trail to follow.”

Trick had wandered over to the altar and was placing some coins and small gemstones on it. He wasn’t normally a pious man, but he respected the power that kept this temple safe, and him while he was in it. He nodded to the altar, the closest he ever came to a reverential bow, then started walking away. He stopped mid-stride as a thought occurred to him. “Say, Sophia, now that we know the truth about you, do you know which god this place belongs to?”

“No. No one does. This place is beyond ancient. It’s older than the gods we know. It might even be older than Exterminis himself. I think that’s why it survived the Desecration, and why it survives to this day. I think it hasn’t been destroyed because it can’t be destroyed. Not even the God of Destruction could tear it down,” she said.

“I guess we’re lucky we found it,” Kaine said. “Or was it luck, Sophia? Was it luck, or did you lead us here that first time, so many years ago?”

“It was luck,” she said coldly, then turned her back to the others. They could hear her sobs through the uncomfortable silence.

Kaine, having never been the kind of man who could stand to hear a woman cry, felt guilty. He started to apologize, but then stopped himself mid sentence. He abruptly shut his mouth, then stormed off into the back area of the temple.

Nightshade went over to Sophia, and put her arm around her. She held Sophia until she stopped crying, and then the two women held each other, supporting each other and reestablishing their bond of friendship. Finally, Nightshade released her, saying, “I don’t approve of what you’ve done, but I understand it. I would have done the same. It’s not easy being alone, and it’s not easy being hunted. I know this all to well, as we all do, since the Peri have been hunting us since we first got together. I can only imagine how much worse it must be for you, with literally every demon in the universe looking for you.”

“Thank you, Eliane,” Sophia said, using Nightshade’s real name. “I wanted to tell you all so many times, but I just couldn’t risk exposing myself. I also didn’t want to expose you all to the danger that knowing the truth would surely bring.”

“What’s done is done,” said Nightshade. “Just no more secrets, ok? We are, all of us, a team. Whatever danger stalks us, we face it together, right?”

Sophia smiled through fresh tears. “Right,” she said.

Trick, who had, up until now, been busy trying to make himself disappear without actually disappearing, cleared his throat nervously and said, “So…uh…what now? What’s our next move?”

Kaine walked back over to the others, and sat down on one of the small benches close to them. “We have to figure out how to end this,” he said. “We can’t keep running forever, and even if we could, we’re running out of places to run to. We can’t go to Bloodshire, or the Pirate Islands, or even Derbyshire. Calymnia is out, as is Meliyat, of course. The Northmen and Ferals won’t give us shelter up North, and the Kucheri won’t let us stay with them in Ashyr. That leaves the jungles to the South, and, as far as anyone knows, there’s nothing down there but lizard folk.”

“Lizard folk and the abominations of Karan-Kell, the Chaos Mage,” said Nightshade.

“Yeah. Him too,” said Kaine.

Trick said, “So, just to recap, the Peri are hunting us because of Nightshade, Blood and her army of assassins are hunting us because we lied to her, and all the demons of hell are hunting us because of Sophia. We have no allies, and nowhere to hide except here, in this very small temple.”

“That about sums it up,” Kaine said. “Anyone have any ideas?”

Everyone was silent for a long time, lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Sophia broke the silence.

“Perhaps it’s time,” she said softly.

“I don’t want to be king,” Kaine said.

“I know,” Sophia said quietly. “But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before we get there. There’s a lot of wrongs that need to be righted. Putting you back on the throne is only one of them.”

“What else is there?” asked Trick

Sophia answered him.“The world has fallen into darkness. A’Etenkah commands an army of undead soldiers, and prevents the dead from resting peacefully. Kullervo and his army of demons sweep across the land, and Karan-Kell poisons the land with his chaotic magic.”

“Kar-” Trick started, “What of them? Wait. You’re not serious. You want us to take on the three GODS who killed all the other gods and now rule the whole world?”

“They’re not gods,” Sophia said. “They’re mortals, and they can be killed.”

“Okay, fine. They’re mortals,” he said. “But they might as well be gods. Each of them controls powerful magic…magic more powerful than anyone else, and certainly more powerful than we have. Each of them has an army of fanatics ready to die for them. Not to mention magical artifacts at their disposal, impenetrable fortresses, and the loyalty of every significant government on Erdael. What in the hell do you think we’re supposed to do about them?”

Kaine stood up and started pacing as he always did when he was heavy in thought. The others waited patiently until he was ready to speak.

“She’s right,” he said after several long moments. “There’s nothing else for us to do, and there’s no one more suited to it than us.”

“No one more suited than us?” Trick asked. “Are you out of your mind? There are plenty of people more suited than us. Take our good friend Blood, for example. She could take all her hired killers and do this easily. Cut, cut, cut, stab, stab, stab, and it’s done.”

“She could,” Kaine said. “But she won’t. She’s in league with them. That’s how she’s managed to keep Bloodshire safe.

“I thought the Lord Mayor kept Bloodshire safe,” Trick said.

“No,” Kaine replied. “He’s just a figurehead. Blood is the real power. She must have cut a deal, although what she gave up, I have no idea.”

Nightshade cracked her neck side to side, then said, “That’s the problem with everyone else. “Either they’re too weak to fight against the Three, or they’ve sold out to them. Kaine is right. There’s no one else. It’s up to us.”

“Oh great. Now you’ve lost your mind, too. How are we supposed to do any of this?”

Kaine walked over, and clapped Trick on the shoulder. “I don’t know, yet. But what I do know is that we have the world’s deadliest assassin, a swordsman who can’t die, one of the most powerful and savage warriors ever known, an angel who survived the death of the gods, and you, my friend, the greatest thief who ever lived! What more do we need?”

“Allies,” said Nightshade somberly. “Allies and equipment, both of which are in awfully short supply.”

Kaine, his zest chilled by Nightshade’s tone, said “And a plan. We’re going to need one hell of a plan.”