Chapter 23

Treya heard a metallic clicking sound as she scraped the shovel through the layer of dirt and grime on the floor. "I think I found something," she said, then looked up. "Are you all right?"

Sarette was leaning against a collapsed stone structure. Her eyes were closed and she was rubbing her temples. The two of them were exploring the middle of the cavernous room while the rest of the group navigated around the edges, searching for tunnels and stairs.

"I just don't like all this rock over our heads," the other woman said. "I'm supposed to be above the mountains, not below them."

Treya nodded. She'd felt a vague sense of unease herself ever since they'd reached the cavern. "Let me know if it gets worse," she said.

"I'm fine now," Sarette said, standing up straight. "What did you find?"

"I'm not sure yet." Treya brushed her hand through the soil she'd turned over, pushing aside several pebbles. Two of them glinted in the illumination from the mage light trapped in the lantern resting nearby. She rubbed the dirt off. "Buttons, I think. That metal that doesn't rust."

Sarette gazed out across the cavern. "How many little bits and pieces do you think there are in a room this big? I hope Ellerie doesn't want to dig the whole thing up."

Treya laughed. "Probably only if we don't find anything more interesting."

"Did you hear something?"

"Just the others. Why?"

"I thought ... never mind. It must have been an echo. Shall we try over that way?" Sarette pointed to some lumps on the ground about thirty feet away.

The two of them headed in that direction.

"Is that cloth?" Treya asked as they drew closer. "Clothing?" The shape was disturbingly familiar, but something about it wasn't quite right.

They stared for a moment.

"We've got to know," Sarette said. She used her staff-spear to push the cloth to the side, uncovering a skeletal hand.

They exchanged glances, and then Treya held the lantern directly over the body so they could get a better look.

"Where's the head?" she asked.

"I don't know, but look, there are more of them."

The new bodies, three of them, did have heads—or rather skulls.

Then, farther away, Treya saw a round object. The missing skull was staring at her, standing upright on the ground. The jaw had separated, but it was otherwise intact. "I found it," she said with a sigh.

"How did they die?" Sarette asked.

Before Treya could respond, she saw lights heading their way, and soon the others had joined them.

"What's this?" Corec said. "Are those bodies?"

"Four of them," Treya said. "One's missing its head. It's over there." She pointed it out.

Sarette said, "Clothing wouldn't have survived for thousands of years, would it? Are these the people who dug out the rockfall?"

"Possibly, but possibly not," Bobo said. "Look around this place. It's a bit of a mess right now, but I don't see any indication that the structure itself has collapsed. Ellerie and I found stairs and tunnels around the north and east sides, and most of it still looks perfectly usable to me."

"We found them along the south side, too," Corec said. He'd been partnered with Shavala.

"What does that have to do with the bodies?" Ellerie asked.

"Simple," Bobo said. "The people who were capable of building this place wouldn't have been bothered by some rocks covering up an entrance. They'd have just unburied it, rigged some contraption to prevent it from happening again, and then gone about their normal lives. The avalanche must have happened after they abandoned the city—possibly a long time after."

"So, this group may have discovered the tunnel before it was buried?"

Bobo gave one of his expressive shrugs. "I can't say for sure, but it's not like the mountain is hard to find. It was on the map. Over thousands of years, hundreds of people must have reached it, even if they didn't know what it was. Most probably stopped at the buildings to the south—maybe that's why we didn't find anything there—but some of them must have explored the mountain. And I doubt the cave we came in by is the only entrance. We're not that far into the mountain. If the city extends throughout, there must be other ways in."

Ellerie sighed. "Then this place may be just as empty as the buildings outside."

"Not completely," Treya said, showing her the buttons. "And we saw a lot of things lying around. Some of it looked like stone from a distance, but not all of it."

Corec said, "We saw stuff too, but I think rainwater has been flowing down the tunnel into this room and rotting everything away. The upper levels may be better preserved."

Bobo nodded. "There's plenty to explore, especially if there are other sections of the city through those tunnels."

"What do you think happened to them?" Ellerie said, glancing at the bodies.

"Some sort of disagreement?" Corec suggested. "Perhaps they ran into another group that didn't want them here."

They stared silently at the bodies for a moment.

Finally, Treya said, "You found stairs?"

"Four large stairways leading up to the first landing," Ellerie said. "They seemed to be spaced evenly, about every hundred yards. I thought this chamber was a circle at first, but now I think it might be more of an oval. It's hard to tell without more light."

"We only found two stairways, but we didn't make it as far as you did," Corec said. "We stopped to look around a few times. Just one tunnel, and it was smaller than the one we came in through."

"We found a smaller tunnel to the north and two larger ones to the east," Bobo said. "I can't decide whether it would be better to go up and see what we can find here, or go east and try to figure out just how big this place is."

Ellerie said, "There's a lot to do, but we should plan it out carefully. For today, I'd like to check out the upper levels. We know there's something to explore there. The tunnels might not lead anywhere."

"I hear something," Shavala said. She peered to the south.

"So do I," Sarette said, holding up one of the mage-light lanterns.

Shavala said, "I just saw something moving, out past the lights."

"An animal?" Corec asked, detaching his scabbard from its harness and drawing his sword. The blade glowed green, shifting to blue as he held it.

Shavala shook her head. "No. I can't feel it with my elder senses. It's like there's nothing there."

"I just saw it," Ellerie said. She summoned another mage light and sent it to the south.

A dark figure stood in the distance, beyond even the new light. It looked like a person.

"Hello!" Corec called out. He stepped in front of the others. "Who are you? Can you understand me?"

The figure didn't speak, but slowly shuffled closer to the light. Treya drew in a sharp breath. It was a man, but he was naked and his left arm was missing. His skin was darkened and bruised. He was looking their way, but with a blank stare, not focusing on anything.

"Bloody hell," Corec muttered. He raised his voice. "Do you need help?"

The uneasy sensation Treya had felt since reaching the chamber grew stronger. "Something's wrong," she said. Her healing senses usually only worked at close range, but she could still feel something unnatural about the man. Unnatural, but familiar.

"I can't sense him," Shavala added.

"What do you mean?" Corec asked. "Why not?"

"There's someone behind us!" Bobo exclaimed.

They whirled around to find a woman lurching toward them. She, too, was naked, though she wore a tarnished metal bracelet on one arm. Her neck was tilted at unnatural angle, and her skin was battered and bruised like the man's. She was close enough to make out her features. Her ears were angular, with a point to them, but not as much as an elf's. Her stare was blank and her eyes were white, as if she had severe cataracts.

"They're already dead," Treya said, her mouth going dry as she realized why the sensation of wrongness felt familiar. It was the same feeling she'd had with the skeletons she and her friends had encountered outside the wizard Lodarin's home.

"Zombies," Bobo said, his voice wavering. He clutched his cudgel close to his chest.

Zombies were creatures out of old stories and legends—dead bodies returned to a false life so they could take revenge on whoever had wronged them. Of course, skeletons had been legends too until Treya saw one for the first time.

She heard faint padded thumps behind her, as if someone was running across the dirt floor, and then a commotion and Corec's startled shout. Turning back, she found that another of the creatures had grabbed Corec's arm and was attempting to chew through his brigandine armor.

"What the ..." Corec exclaimed. He pushed the figure away but it sprang back, clawing at his face. This one was another man, with no obvious injuries other than its bruised gray skin.

Corec wrestled with it and forced it down to the ground. Standing up, he reversed his grip on his sword and stabbed down into the zombie's chest. The creature didn't stop moving, instead grabbing the blade and trying to pull itself up. Corec kicked at it, then stomped on its neck to hold it down as he pulled his sword out. Stepping back from the zombie, he swung down, beheading it. The blade struck sparks as it cut through the layer of dirt and then an inch into the stone flooring below.

"This one's getting closer!" Bobo shouted in panic.

Ellerie whispered the words to a spell, and one of her beams of light hit the woman in the face. The creature collapsed.

Shavala extended her hand and flames billowed out toward the first one they'd seen. Its skin burned but it didn't otherwise react, continuing to take short steps in their direction. Shavala kept the fire burning, and finally the zombie fell, too damaged to continue moving.

More of the creatures appeared at the edges of the light, some moving faster than others.

"Sarette, guard our backs!" Corec yelled. The two of them took positions at opposite sides of the group. As the zombies approached, Corec stepped away from the others, clearing enough room to maneuver his sword. He swung at the first of the creatures, hacking its arm off and cutting into its side. The zombie kept coming, not appearing to notice the injuries. Corec grunted, then swung the glowing sword in a wide arc, slamming it deep into the creature's torso. The zombie went slack and slid off the blade, collapsing.

On Sarette's side, one of the faster ones ran close, but she rapped the butt of her staff-spear against the ground, charging it, then thrust the blade into the zombie's stomach. A flash of blue and white light flickered over the creature and it fell to the ground twitching.

More creatures neared and Corec waded into their midst, swinging with strength rather than finesse and taking down one target after another.

Sarette danced fluidly between the zombies, the creatures collapsing when she touched them with her weapon. But then the lightning magic on her staff-spear faded and she was forced to fight them normally. Stabbing them with her spear didn't have much of an effect, and she was soon surrounded. Then she tripped over something and fell to the ground. One of the zombies loomed over her, but Ellerie killed it with another beam spell.

Treya rushed at the nearest of the creatures, striking its throat. It didn't react. She kicked it in the back of its leg and it fell to its knees, but despite her continued assault, it managed to stand back up. Letting her breath out, she focused all her energy and reached out to lightly tap the creature's chest. She heard the sound of the zombie's ribs cracking at the center of impact, and it flew backward, falling and rolling until it came to a stop lying face down. It pushed itself up on its hands and tried to pull its body back to her, clawing at the ground.

"I can't hurt them!" Ellerie shouted as she pulled her rapier from a zombie's throat. She started whispering the words to a spell but the creature came at her again and she had to dash away. Then Bobo was there, crushing the thing's head with his cudgel.

"Neither can I!" Shavala said. She lowered her bow, facing a zombie with three of her arrows embedded in its chest. She cast her flame spell again, enveloping her new opponent.

"Their heads or their spines!" Corec called back. "That stops them!"

Sarette had clambered back to her feet and switched to a new tactic—hamstringing the zombies by cutting the tendons at the back of their knees. It didn't kill them, but it knocked them down, giving her time to hack at their necks.

Treya faced off with another of the creatures, a smaller woman. She grabbed it by the shoulders to stop its advance, forcing herself to hold on despite the cold clamminess of its skin. Then she swept her leg against its ankles, tripping it and forcing it down to the ground. Straddling its chest, she grabbed its head and slammed it repeatedly against the floor, shattering the skull into fragments. The zombie finally stopped moving.

Treya stumbled back and wiped her hands against her tunic, trying to get the gooey black blood off her fingers—and trying not to think about what she'd just done. It felt wrong, but then, so did the zombies. And there were dozens of them, maybe hundreds, coming into view at the edge of the light.

There had to be a better way. Centering herself, Treya tried to shout, as she'd done that day with the skeletons, but all that came out was a clear bell tone. A white burst of light rushed outward from her body, and the sound of the bell tolling echoed back and forth across the chamber, growing louder and louder. Her entire body was glowing with a white light, she realized. She flung her arms out to her sides, not knowing why. With each ring of the bell, another flash of light pulsed out from her body in a perfect circle, and as the light and sound intersected, the zombies collapsed to the ground.

The rush of magic was beyond anything Treya had ever experienced, and she tried to scream—whether in pain or in exhilaration, she didn't know—but the only sound she could produce was the ringing of the bell.

She could no longer feel the floor beneath her feet. Her posture had gradually arched backward, her face pointing up, and she had to force herself to straighten her head and look down to find out why. She was hovering a foot off the floor. She stretched her legs out as far as she could, but the ground was too far to reach.

The pulses of light and the echoes of the bell gradually started to fade, and suddenly Treya was more tired than she'd ever been before in her life.

She fell, landing on her hands and knees. Vaguely, in the back of her mind, she could feel her healing magic already attacking the worst symptoms of her drain shock. She briefly considered trying to stand, but it was too overwhelming to think about the effort that would be required. Instead, she rolled onto her side and fell asleep.

#

Corec struck down yet another zombie, then wiped away the blood that had begun dripping down into his left eye from the scratches across his forehead. The creatures' fingernails were sharp, and he'd been mobbed by too many at once. He'd cast his shield spell after the first of the zombies had attacked him, but he hadn't been able to keep it up for long during the repeated attacks. He cursed himself for leaving his helmet back at the camp. His armor spell lasted longer than the shield spell, but it didn't work in spots where he wasn't wearing armor.

Able to see clearly again, he faced the next wave of slower zombies. He was tempted to rush them, but he had to keep a careful balance—far enough away from his friends that he could swing his sword without worrying about hitting them, but close enough to provide them with protection.

Without warning, a bell tolled, sounding as if it was coming from every direction at once. White light washed over everything, so bright it was almost blinding. Then it disappeared, and with it, the nearest ranks of the zombie horde fell, no longer moving.

The bells, or the bell—it was hard to tell how many there were with all the echoes—continued tolling, and more flashes of light washed over the room. They were weaker than the first, but zombies still fell each time in outwardly expanding waves.

Corec spun around to find everyone staring at Treya, who was floating in the air and glowing with a white light. Her arms were spread out to her sides and her head was thrown back, her eyes closed. The bursts of light were coming from her.

Corec realized he could feel the light as it washed over him. It felt ... good, reinvigorating him to continue the fight. The scratches on his forehead had stopped hurting. He rubbed at them, but only dried flecks of blood came away. The skin felt smooth.

Treya opened her eyes and looked down, seemingly a bit panicked, and then the lights and sounds faded out. She fell to the ground and rolled over on her side, unconscious.

Corec rushed to her and checked her pulse. "What happened?" he asked Ellerie. "What did she do?"

The elven woman was still staring. "I ... I don't know. I've never seen anything like that." She shook her head as if to clear it. "She's gone into drain shock. We need to keep her warm."

"Here," Sarette said, unbuckling her padded overcoat and shrugging it off of her shoulders. "Wrap this around her."

Corec did as she suggested, then quickly sheathed his sword and reattached it to its harness so he could pick Treya up in his arms. "Let's get back to camp. We might not be able to light a fire, but the sun was shining when we left and we've got blankets there. Sarette, take point. Shavala, can you watch our backs?"

"Yes," Shavala replied.

"Wait," Ellerie said. "Look at them." The zombies were collapsing into black dust.

Everyone stared at the sight.

"Centuries of decay happening all at once," Bobo suggested.

"That must be why they weren't wearing anything. Whatever magic was animating them preserved the bodies, but their clothing rotted away." Ellerie grimaced. "Some of them had jewelry, but let's not mention that to Marco. I'd rather just leave it where it is."

"We should get going," Corec said. "There may be more of them, and we're not in any shape for another fight."

Ellerie nodded. "Yes, of course." She spun around, looking for the first mage lights they'd cast. "That way," she said, pointing.

Sarette headed for the lights. Corec followed her, carrying Treya. She was lighter than he'd expected, but he was still grateful they didn't have far to go. He'd never had to carry a person for any great distance before. It was a hundred yards back to the tunnel, and then a quarter of a mile from there to the entrance.

As they walked, they spoke.

"We'll have to be more careful next time," Ellerie said. "We should all stay together in one group."

Splitting up had been her idea, but Corec hadn't contradicted her. The place had seemed safe enough—one vast room with a sturdy floor, and no twists or turns to block their view. But they'd been far enough apart that they couldn't see each other through the darkness, just the bobbing of lights in the distance. Had the zombies been in the cavern with them the whole time? Or had they come from the other tunnels?

"We can bring Boktar and Josip," Bobo suggested. "Katrin and Nedley can watch over Treya."

"No," Corec said firmly. "No one's going back in until Treya's feeling better."

"But—" Ellerie started, then paused.

Bobo said, "That won't be until tomorrow if it's anything like the last time she had drain shock."

"So we won't go back in until tomorrow," Corec said. "There were too many of those things for us to fight them all off on our own. If Treya hadn't done ... whatever that was, I don't know what would have happened."

"But she already killed them all," Bobo said. Then he furrowed his brow. "If the word kill can be applied to the undead. I'm not sure what the proper terminology would be."

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