“I don’t recall the corridor being this long.” Maela glanced back at him.
“Whose turn is it to walk into the wall?” Bastien raised an eyebrow at her, knowing full well what the answer was.
“Yours.” She grinned.
He exhaled, and then put his hand out in front of him. It took him three tries before he passed through a section of wall. He smacked his shoulder on part of the archway, and grunted. A moment later, he was through. The chamber contained another door, similar to the one that had brought them into the tomb. It had a place for a keystone. “Maela?” He glanced at her.
She held up the lantern and read before turning back to him. “It leads to…” Her eyes widened and her face lit with glee. “The library.” She bounced up on her toes. “Think Master Rien will let us look?”
“I’m pretty sure you can convince him.” Bastien chuckled.
Maela turned back to the writing. “Oh, and then there is another exit from the tomb, one that lets you leave on the other side of the mountain.” She exhaled. “This was carved all the way through the mountain. Can you imagine what it took to build this?”
“Magic.” Bastien nodded. He took the lantern, holding it for her so she could keep examining the writing. She practically cooed over the words carved into the wall, occasionally reading off passages to him. The room seemed to contain a history of the Dragonlord’s life. “You’re going to have to write all this down for Rien.”
“This is amazing.” She touched one of the murals, running her fingers over it. “I never dreamed I’d get to…” She threw her head back and sighed happily, then her eyes widened. “Master Rien is going to kill the dragon.”
“That’s the —” He started to nod.
“It’s a legend, Bast. A legend.” Her face was flushed in the lantern light. “And I’m here for it. I can…” She spun before turning to face him again. “I can write it.” She exhaled, and closed her eyes before sighing again. “I can write it.”
“As if the man needed more flattery…” Bastien just chuckled.
“I could make it a poem.” She nodded.
“He crept through the tomb as though he were a mole…” Bastien shrugged. “The mighty Rien, the world’s biggest asshole.”
Her lands lowered, and she glared at him. “Bast.”
“Come on, let’s go find them.” He gestured at an archway.
They hadn’t gone far when he heard the sound of voices.
“I didn’t want it to come to this.” Rutger sighed.
“You know, if you’d introduced yourself properly the first time we met…” Phillip stood just slightly behind Rutger. “You could have saved everyone a great deal of trouble.”
He stared at his brother, feeling fury start to rise. Rien started to reach for his axe. “That’s a bad idea, brother.” Rutger shook his head.
“Is it?” Rien snarled. “It took forty men to kill my father.” His hand closed around the haft of his axe. “You brought twelve.”
“Oh for…” Phillip rolled his eyes, then glanced at a man with a crossbow. “If he takes one step, shoot the girl.”
Rien froze in his tracks, and saw a faint flicker of surprise cross Rutger’s face. Rachel made a small frightened sound. Rien pushed her behind him. He doubted Rutger would actually kill Rachel, but he wasn’t inclined to take a chance on Phillip. He focused his gaze on Rutger. “You allied with this dog?”
“So did you.” Rutger smirked. “Funny. I discounted you completely.” Rutger shook his head. “Frankly I didn’t think a keystone was shiny enough to get your attention. I thought I’d be able to leave you alive, let you lead our armies.” Rutger sighed. “I am sorry for this, Rien.”
“Leave me…” Rien felt a chill go through his blood. “Jurgen?”
“You know…” Phillip chuckled. “I thought a man who called himself the Stone Dragon would be a lot more difficult to deal with.”
Phillip had… And if it hadn’t been for Bast, Rien himself would have helped his brother’s murderer take over a kingdom. “Even if you kill me, you won’t win. Everyone knows you didn’t bring back the keystone.” He shook his head. “Lammert will —”
“Lammert?” Rutger smirked. “Our brother may fancy himself a spymaster, but he never saw me coming. Couldn’t even find a keystone of his own. He’s only still alive because he got lucky. The men I sent after him got taken by pirates.” Rutger shrugged. “Works out better this way. He makes such a fine scapegoat, don’t you think? Blood tells.” Rutger spread his hands. “After all, Drika confessed to being in his pay, didn’t she? Everyone heard.” He gave an exaggerated sigh. “Pity I wasn’t able to get her in time to save you from him, little brother.”
“Where is the sword?” Phillip narrowed his eyes.
“Troll ate it.” Rien clenched his fists.
“You were in here half the day and couldn’t find one fucking sword?” Rutger stared at him.
“How the hell did you even get a keystone in the first place?” Phillip chuckled. When he killed that man, it was going to be slowly. Maybe he’d even let Jurgen’s sons take a turn with the flensing blade.
“Do you really think the likes of you can take on a dragon, Rutger?” Rien shook his head. “Even with…”
“I don’t need to kill the dragon.” Rutger rolled his eyes. “Ballistas can handle that.”
“The prophecy —” Rien glared. Rutger would throw the entirety of their people into chaos. Despite everything, he’d never thought Rutger would actually betray their mother. And Rutger… Rutger had loved Jurgen too. Hadn’t he? Had he ever actually known his brother at all?
“Oh for the love of…” Phillip ran a hand down his face. “He really is that stupid, isn’t he?”
“There is no prophecy, Rien.” Rutger gave a tired shake of his head.
“The staff…” If he moved right, maybe he could get Rachel into cover before engaging them.
“The staff can only be passed to a new bearer by killing the previous bearer.” Phillip folded his arms. “And it was entombed with the corpse of its last bearer. So unless someone figured out a way to kill a desiccated corpse, the staff is just a pretty stick.”
“Asrael imparted a curse into the staff, passed on to whoever gains its gift. The oracle cannot tell a lie, Rien.” Rutger smirked. “And Mother lies whenever she damn well feels like it.”
“It’s a good story though.” Phillip chuckled. “Shoot the dragon down, Rutger here goes back with a sword, and we have an army of Wilders to loose upon the world.”
“Where is the sword, Rien?” Rutger folded his arms.
The tomb was full of traps, monsters, and a knight who would take considerable glee in stabbing Phillip in the face. The only downside to that would mean that Rien wouldn’t get the pleasure of personally ripping the man’s throat out. But that would still leave Rutger. And he was going to enjoy smashing that pretty face into pulp. “Find it yourself.”
“I am sorry about this, brother.” Rutger shook his head, then gestured at the man with the crossbow. “Kill him.”
The man lifted the weapon, and Rien braced himself. He could pull Rachel with him when he dodged, or perhaps even take the shot, then charge, and if nothing else he could take the cretins with him. A half heartbeat before the man could fire, a thrown dagger hit the crossbow, severing the string and knocking it away. The bolt clattered to the ground as Bast came out of the other corridor. Rien shoved Rachel toward cover and drew his axe.
It had been tempting, far too tempting, to put Maela’s dagger into Phillip’s throat. The oath had never weighed heavier than in that moment. He’d passed the sword to Maela, who had gone back to the chamber hidden behind the illusion. Even if they lost, she’d still be able to keep the sword from them.
Losing, however, did not seem likely. The light crossbows the men had may have been effective against the lightly clad Wilders, but the bolts did nothing against his shield. Rutger and Phillip were already retreating as more men entered. Sjaak and his raiders. And from the looks of it, they hadn’t come to back up Rien. He heard Rien cursing even as the big man brought his axe into play.
Bastien wanted to ignore the situation, to focus on getting to Phillip. To kill that traitorous bastard at any cost. Duty warred with duty, and he growled in frustration before moving in to aid Rien.
“We need the sword.” Rutger shook his head as he lifted his club.
“Screw the bloody sword.” Phillip grabbed Rutger’s shoulder. “Any sword will do, once the dragon is dead. Move.”
Rien howled a war cry as he smashed his axe into a knight, trying to push past to get at his brother. Bastien caught a blow on his shield, then hamstrung the man who’d delivered it. He yanked his sword free just as he heard a panicked cry from Rachel. “Master Rien, the stone.”
He looked up in time to see Rutger pulling the keystone free. The door started to slide closed. “Goodbye, brother.” Rutger followed Phillip through the closing door. Sjaak and two of the knights retreated after them.
Knights still stood between them and the door, and even if they could get through they didn’t have time to get Maela first. Bastien slammed his shield into a man, trying to get a path open for Rien. He had the best chance of getting the keystone from Rutger. With a mighty blow, Rien cut the man he was facing in half, then charged at the door. He reached it just as it closed with a thud. “Rutger.” Rien smashed his fist into the door. “Kinslayer!” He smashed his fist into the stone again, then again. “Murderer!”
He started to hit the stone again, and Bast caught his arm. He nearly drove his fist into the man’s face instead before catching himself. “He killed Jurgen.” Rien flung his axe away. It smashed into one of the stone pedestals, knocking it over. “He killed Jurgen, and now he…”
“Phillip the king of Solsthriem. Rutger the king of the Wildlands.” Bast yanked a crossbow bolt out of his shield, and flung it away. “That’s a powerful alliance.” He looked at the stone door. “And without that keystone, there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it.” He looked like he wanted to smash his own fist into the stone. “We’re trapped.”
“He…” Rien took several deep breaths. His brother was dead. Jurgen was dead. The Stone Dragon was dead. “Murdered. Jurgen.”
“I heard you, Rien, I…” Bast started to shake his head.
“No, Bast, clearly you did not.” Rien narrowed his eyes. He clenched and unclenched his fists, and his voice shook with fury. “Those pieces of shit murdered Jurgen. And I will not let either of them get away with it, even if I have to claw through this stone with my bare hands. They…” He drew himself to his full height. “Will not rule either of our peoples, Bast. I will not allow it.” He waved a hand. “There is a way out of this. Find it.”
Slowly, Bast nodded. Then he took a deep breath of his own. “Maela and I found another door. It would allow us to get past whatever guard they leave, but it still takes a keystone to open.” He shrugged. “We found the sword.”
“Where’s Maela?” Rien frowned.
“Hiding with the sword.” Bast headed for the corridor. “I’ll get her.” He looked up, then stopped and frowned. “Rachel, you alright?”
She slit the throat of one of the enemies that was still breathing, then nodded before moving to the next. “Yes.”
Rien smiled. “Good girl.”
Bastien looked over the weapons they’d taken from the dead. The crossbows were fairly light, and could be managed by Maela or Rachel. He’d given each woman a couple more daggers. At least they had a couple more lanterns, but their supply of water was already low, and they had no food.
“He taught me how to ride.” Bastien turned at the sound of Rien’s voice. Rien dusted off an ancient helmet and set it back on a pedestal before sighing. “Jurgen. I was…” His voice was thick. “I was actually afraid. Of the horse. It was huge and its feet were the size of my head and…” He rubbed his arm before sighing. “But Jurgen said I’d be fine, and Jurgen said it, so…” He looked down. “So I let him put me on the horse.”
“I’m sorry, Rien.” Bastien swallowed.
“And I…” Rien shook his head. “Phillip killed my brother. Then I, damn fool that I am, helped him kill his.” He leaned on the pedestal. “I never even…” He looked up at Bastien. “If I had stopped, just for a moment, to think about…” His laughter was bitter. “If it hadn’t been for you, they’d have already won. Phillip would be king of Solsthriem, and Rutger would have killed me on my way back and taken the keystone for himself.”
“Rien…” As much as he thought Rien needed to learn, this was a brutal way for it to happen.
“And now he’s going to kill Lammert.” He kicked another helmet. It soared across the chamber, bounced off a wall, and clattered to a stop behind a stone bench. “No, he’s going to have Lammert blamed for killing me, and executed. And Mother will believe every word. He’ll trick Mother into killing her innocent son, unless we find some way out of this fucking chamber.”
“Maybe there is something else further in.” Bastien glanced at the women reading the markings on the stone. “Anything?”
“I’m not…” Maela stood up on her toes a little to see something, then frowned. She looked around, then grabbed a wooden crate from behind one of the stone benches and dragged it over to stand on.
Bastien stared a moment, frowning. He shook his head a couple times, then frowned again. Something about… His eyes widened. “Maela?”
“What?” She turned toward him.
“What are you standing on?” He started toward her.
“A…” She looked down at the crate, then around at the chamber. Then she looked down at it again before stepping off of it. “Crate.”
“What’s odd about a crate?” Rien looked over at them.
“It’s not ours.”
“Rien, it’s not ours. It’s not theirs.” Bast gestured at dead men. “And it sure as hell wasn’t put here by whoever built the crypt.” He turned to look at the crate. “So…”
“Someone was here before…” Rien slowly nodded. “And they left…” He stared, then nodded to Maela. “Open it.”
Rien walked toward Maela as she took the lid off the box. Beneath the lid there was folded leather, and a sealed piece of parchment. She picked up the parchment and looked up at him. He nodded, and she broke the seal. Her voice trembled just a little. “It’s a map, Master Rien. And a note.”
“What does the note say?” Bast joined them, as did Rachel.
“It says…” Maela swallowed. “As much as I envy you your ignorance, there are lessons that must be learned. You will find the dragon here. I will buy you what time I can, but it would be best if you do not linger.” She spread the parchment out before handing it to Rien.
It was indeed a map, one showing both their current location, and another that based on the apparent scale of the map was at least two days away. The writing itself was neat, painstaking block strokes, giving no clue to their origins. “We still need to find a way out of here.”
Maela started to lift the leather, and then gasped. She pulled the leather away entirely. Rien stared at the contents of the box. “Are those…” Bast shook his head. “What I think they are?”
Slowly, Rien reached into the box, and pulled out one of the three keystones that lay inside. He laughed, then set it back in the box. Then he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Rachel, Lovely…” He turned toward her. “You are a wise and clever woman. Please tell me what I am seeing here.”
“Someone came here before us, with three keystones…” Rachel tilted her head. “And left them here along with a note before exiting the chamber again without taking anything.” Rachel frowned. “Despite the fact that your mother had announced whoever brought back a keystone would be named her heir.”
“Bast, Maela…” Rien looked at each of them in turn. “Do you agree with her assessment?”
Bast gave him an odd look before nodding. “Yes, Master Rien,” Maela said.
“Ah.” He looked down at the box. “So I’m not going mad?”
“If you are…” Bast rubbed the back of his neck. “You’re taking us with you.”