Cale gazed into the crypt, seven crumbling steps into the ground, then into darkness. It was clearly built long before the Vine had reawakened. According to the villagers, Barton Trace had fled inside with the icon he stole, a statue of Urluthe’s angel, much older than the village, with mystical qualities that protected them from sorcery.
“Are you afraid to go in?” asked Shup. He held two torches they’d cobbled together from twigs, fabric, and oil, one of them lit and just starting to burn.
Cale motioned forward with his bushy staff. “Go ahead.”
“C’mon. I’m just asking.”
“Don’t you feel it?” asked Cale.
“Something’s weird, I’ll give you that. I thought it was gas.”
Cale squinted. “The Vine of Urluthe is extremely thin here—I don’t think I could conger a pebble. The dead will not have gone far to rest because the connection to their body is so light.”
“Were these godless people?”
“No. Not at all. It was made before the Vine’s awakening so they had no knowledge of its presence.” It was more complicated than that, but Cale had no time for a lecture.
“What about the kid?”
Cale shook his head. “He’ll have more trouble than me, I think. The most powerful sorcerer would be ineffectual here.”
“So what’s the problem?”
Cale glared askance at him. “Wouldn’t you hesitate to go somewhere that made you ten times weaker? Even if everyone else suffered from it, too?” He grabbed the lit torch and handed Shup his staff. “Follow.” He tested the first step, then went down.
“Wait. We’re going?”
Cale ducked into the cave and swept the torch from side to side. It smelled like mushrooms and musty wood. Shelves carved into the walls held many skeletons crammed together and intermixing their bones. Cale recognized the letters carved into stone as ancient Elam, but couldn’t decipher any of the words. Names probably. If not for the vacancy of the Vine making him feel like the blood had been sucked out of him, the place wouldn’t spook him, but now the bones impressed him with a feeling of abandonment. Desolation, maybe.
Shup stepped up and held his torch to Cale’s to light it. “What if he’s not in here?”
Cale shushed him and whispered. “He’s here.”
They stooped and walked further back. When the shelves ended, disintegrating coffins appeared, collapsed on top of each other, bones spilling out and piling on the floor.
The tunnel’s darkness ahead reminded Cale of the Well of no Hope he’d barely escaped last fall. It seemed much longer ago than that. With a single arduous task, he’d grown from novice to seasoned wizard. He would have liked more time living the simple, disciplined life of a tyro.
The torches revealed vaults on each side, barred gates hanging off their hinges. “Barton,” said Cale. “Where are you?” He held still. “Can you hear anything?” he asked.
“No,” said Shup.
“Stand guard here.” Cale turned into the left vault. A large sarcophagus on a stone platform filled most of the chamber, twigs and grass on the floor and present-day lettering painted on the wall, still unreadable to him. He crossed in front of Shup to the other chamber, this one filled with pieces of wood, stone, and metal thrown every which way with no apparent purpose.
They advanced, and just as two other vaults appeared, the face of Barton came into view in front of them next to the icon, his leg shackled to a metal band around the angel’s waste, a long dagger in his hand. The torchlight flickered off of ancient Elam letters on the icon’s base.
“Barton, what are you doing?” asked Cale.
A wooden crash followed by rattling startled them.
Cale took his staff from Shup. “Why don’t you check on that?”
Shup stepped away.
Cale bent his head forward to peer in Barton’s eyes. “Who did this to you?
“I don’t answer to weeders,” Barton said.
“You’ll starve to death in here.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out an apple. “Come out and eat with us. We’ll help you with the icon.”
Shup yelped, followed by more rattling.
“I’ll die before betraying Theront,” said Barton.
“Ah. There it is.” Cale stepped closer, the torch blazed in Barton’s eyes. “Theront’s using you now, and he always will. Come out with us and learn the ways of elaman.”
Shup trotted back to them breathing hard, but Cale held his hand up to keep quiet.
“That’s the way of weakness,” said Barton. “Theront will teach me strength.”
“It will be much better for you if you give up the icon and come with us freely,” Cale said.
Barton sneered. “Your power is useless here. You can’t touch me.”
“That’s true, but it also means I can’t stop them,” said Cale. “And the dead have their own kind of power.”
Cale pulled Shup aside, backs to the wall, and a horde of skeletons came into the light, walking awkwardly toward Barton.
“Okay! I’ll give you the icon!”
“It doesn’t belong to me,” said Cale. “It belongs to them.”