Chapter 26: Gold & Grime

Chapter 26: Gold & Grime

The Gaoler never rested. It pushed his body and mind relentlessly to do its bidding. The cost was great, but the reward was greater.

Far, far greater.

The glorious instant it had first seized him, its fire-red eyes installed themselves—perched just behind his own. They had looked not only outward to see what he saw, but they also looked inward and absorbed all his memories. Two things had flashed before him. He saw the black book, and he saw the giant stone statues in the main sewer junction. The Gaoler had demanded that he bring the book before the statues.

He had obeyed. There was no question. He had no choice.

He had walked in the dark, with no need anymore for light, to the statue on the left. His knees buckled painfully, deliciously, to the ground before it, and he opened the book on the floor.

The pages were somehow different. He did not know the language of the book anymore, but somehow he was able to read it aloud anyway. The all-powerful presence in his mind devoured the information and unlocked its secrets at a rate that left his mortal mind spinning and his body heaving.

“Burn it,” The Gaoler had commanded, after several hours.

He focused jets of white-hot flame from his fingertips onto the tattered pages. They leapt upward into an incendiary ball almost like they wanted to burn. In a few moments there was nothing left but smoldering ash.

Methodically, driven by otherworldly knowledge, He rubbed the ash all over the parts of the stone statue that he could reach. It awoke, and he felt it, too, perched inside his mind. He also felt the magical little book reform itself inside his breast pocket.

“Protect us,” he demanded. “Stir when there are invaders, and crush them.”

The cold stone consciousness had gone blank again.

Until this moment.

The tattooed Islander was lingering, as if awaiting a command. There was a new prisoner. A female prisoner. But now there were more pressing concerns. The stone giant had awoken.

With some effort—and more than a little regret—he stood, blackened blood dribbling down his left leg.

“We are breached,” he said venomously. “Take your brethren to the junction and make the enemy suffer. Use your gifts to make sure they die slowly and painfully. We wish to feast on their misery.”

The noise beyond was thunderous. There were shouts. Was that Boudreaux’s voice? X’andria stood by the wall, totally alert. Her sharp eyes focused through the gloom and seized on a tiny shining object in the dirt. 

My gold loop!

Whatever was happening outside, it was significant. Now was the time.

Clutching her gold loop close, she focused on the door. She focused on the latch that locked the door from the outside. Breathing steadily, slowly, she willed the latch to lift.

Her heart raced. This is my chance, she thought.

The door opened and X’andria sped into the hallway, looking quickly left to right. There were no guards. Zarina’s cell was next to hers. X’andria was just about to open it when she noticed her belongings crumpled in a pile nearby.

Please, please, please, she begged as she rifled through the folds of her robes. Yes, there it is! Her silk bag of flint, parchment, and ash was still tucked in its place in one of her many pockets. She shrugged on her robe as she stumbled back toward the cell in which Zarina and her two daughters were imprisoned. 

Boudreaux was a mess. The adrenaline that had powered him out of the gunk and into action was wearing off now, and he realized how much pain he was in. He could barely talk. At least a few ribs were broken. He was winded. He had a terrible headache. His torso armor and silver sword were gone. And he was completely saturated in filthy goo.

“That was amazing, guys,” Gnome whistled through his teeth, as he and Waif emerged from the drainage tunnel. He peered over the edge into the gloppy pool as if to make sure the stone behemoth was really gone.

“We owe you our lives again, Boudreaux,” Ohlen was saying, but his words trailed off as he looked distractedly past them toward the passage now bordered by just one stone statue.

Three ornately tattooed men spilled from the doorway. They were bald, bare from the waist up, and brandishing cruel-looking curved scimitars. They advanced slowly toward the bedraggled party, fanning out as they came.

Ohlen’s senses prickled wildly. The arrival of these exotic warriors was one thing, and he could sense something far worse beyond.Even so, a faint wet fleshy slapping sound behind him caused him to look over his shoulder. Staggering out of the gloom of the drainage tunnel behind them came dead and unblinking white eyes on a large naked and decaying body with stumps instead of hands.

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