When they rejoined the party, the other aides looked wonderingly for their peer to catch up with them, but said nothing outright and asked Apf no questions. The elder knights looked merry enough, and indeed the passage ahead of them was now clear of obvious impediments. The boulders had retracted into hidden chambers high in black slots above the grooved tunnels. They might come crashing down at any time, of course, so Spar was obliged to cross with the knights, one at a time, ready to block with his body any sphere that might be released. But it proved an unnecessary precaution. At the end of this passage was another lever, which Spar now threw as they braced themselves against death from every angle. The action of the lever was twofold: a door opened immediately ahead of them, while the boulders were released from the slots to their rear and commenced rolling back and forth again. It was not the sound Gorlen would have chosen to underscore the next stage of their journey.
Where Gorlen expected the doorway to unleash sharpened spikes, a heavy decapitating blade, or even a massive crusher, instead it gave way to a luminous chamber. The ceiling had collapsed in ages past, and here the keep was open to the sky. At the far end of the long rectangular floor, an ancient winding stair rose up out of sight beyond a crumbling threshold. They did not immediately proceed to mount the steps. The day was well under way, and directly overhead was a bright blue and cheerful expanse, lightly touched with fluffy pure white clouds. This was rare weather indeed, and they were missing it, mocked by it. The birds wheeled to and fro across the face of this pristine beauty, acting like its owners, reminding him of freedom just out of reach, and elaborate danger all about.
This room appeared to be an antechamber to some greater and more important space. The knights conducted a careful survey of possible threats, triggers, traps, ambushes, etc., but finding nothing, regrouped and ate a few mouthfuls of dried fruit, tore at some jerked marlymonk, allowed themselves several sips of water that Gorlen (included in the sup) was surprised to find fortified, or laced, with strong alcohol. It did not feel like an ideal time to blunt one’s wits or reflexes with drink. But it occurred to him that these veterans of other hazardous keeps might be drinking to numb chronic pain and dull the awareness of ever-present terror.
“Is it worth all this?” Gorlen asked the knight to whom he passed the flask. The knight took the container in his left hand because the right was a mangled club, acid-scarred and missing several fingers—so gnarled, in fact, that Gorlen couldn’t be sure it hadn’t once been a foot.
“It’s a living,” the old knight said.
“Worthy of a knight? Truly?”
“We do the lost lord’s work, we are his sworn men, and as we gather his reward we earn our own. I’ve no doubt much of it is hidden here. You don’t know how lucky you are to be part of the reclamation effort, lad. This could be the big one! We all feel it, Glaustus most of all. There’s those have doubted him over the years, saying he’s only in it for self-enrichment—even whispering that there never was a lord, no treasure stolen, nothing to reclaim, just a thin excuse for robbery plain and simple—but even in the teeth of doubters, Apf has never flagged or lost his faith. He’s the lord’s own man, he is, and in following him we do our own lord proud. You don’t know your luck being here today.”
“So you said. But it feels like more of my usual luck to blunder in at the climax of a conflagration. I’m afraid I have yet to see a single prophecy play out according to the beliefs of its participants.”
The knight was no longer listening. With the flask dangling between his knees, he had fallen into a momentary slumber—perhaps a drunken one. Gorlen was a poor judge of old men’s natural habits, but he thought only strong drink could explain how anyone, no matter how weary, might manage to sleep under such conditions.
“Fall in!” came the voice of Glaustus Apf, and Gorlen realized too late, as the old knight’s eyes slowly opened, that he might have taken advantage of his guard’s inattention. Had he slipped their grasp, the knights would have had no hostage to use against Spar. Then again, he could hardly have backed out of this room without Spar’s assistance—and there would have been plenty of time for the knights to overwhelm and recapture him. Their position remained impossible. It was just as well he had managed to rest.
The knights rose and reassembled before the threshold, studying the stairs leading up higher into the craggy keep. In formation, they were as shiny and bejeweled an assemblage as ever stood to attention. They had taken advantage of their pause to polish up the gems that bedecked and bejeweled them. It was a proud order indeed, these Knights of Reclamation; and after a short prayer to affirm their ancient right to whatever spoils lay ahead, they moved on.
Now began the ascent. It was strange that a forbidden fortress should hide away its treasures in a bright and airy eyrie, rather than in some dank dungeon, but such was the logic of the keep’s architecture. There was nowhere else to go.
Spar moved carefully, shifting onto intricate tiles with the assumption—not particularly far-fetched —that every step was a pressure plate meant to unleash some new form of mangling, maceration, strangulation, incineration, or decapitation. In some instances an empty click informed them that some ancient snare had lost its potency; and in these cases, the rooks of the keep flocked and rushed busily about in the upper reaches of the high stair, with twists of wire and pointed sticks in their beaks. They flitted in and out of grooves and incisions in the stonework, poking and pulling at hidden objects in the shadows of the wall. Gorlen had the feeling he was watching craftsmen at work; they looked like they were busy picking locks, engaging tumblers, poking the sticks to loosen up time-frozen mechanisms. He felt quite certain they were hard at work fixing the broken traps, and setting them to right.
As the supply of younger aides was depleted, it fell upon the veterans to prove their worth and take their lumps—or more commonly leave their lumps in the form of bloody clots of tissue and hair on the stone walls of the corridors, fouling the sides of otherwise untarnished blades. The old knights in their ornate armor were more resilient (or anyway more resigned) to the hardships, and after a time Gorlen began to admit to himself that he had been wrong in some of his early prejudices. If these toils were typical of those they endured to extract their wealth, then perhaps they really had earned it. Deserted keeps and buried redoubts, it could be argued, were simply asking to be plundered. Whatever wealth lay lodged here was wasted, was it not? It did no one any good. Even if their guiding legend of a looted lord was entirely bogus, they harmed no one but themselves in extracting it from ruinous haunts.
Still, given the harm they did themselves, it was not a vocation Gorlen would have wanted, and it bespoke the desperation of the multitudes that the Knights of Reclamation never lacked new volunteers, and had not lost their surviving members simply through desertion once the hardships of the life were understood.
The ceaseless activity of the rooks had an ominous quality, and the entire party began to watch the birds flitting here and there in the gloom. Gorlen saw that they no longer carried their tiny tools. Perhaps it was feeding time, and they were ferrying tidbits to their nests—for what they carried in their beaks now were tiny squirming shapes, some sort of vermin. The birds fluttered on ahead of them, and gradually even the sound of wings grew silent.
In a hush, they arrived at the top of the stair. By this time, the invading host had been accurately decimated. In the vanguard, Spar absorbed the brunt of trauma; but there were more than enough hazards constantly presenting from sides and rear that Gorlen never felt safe for a moment, despite his dedicated escort.
Before them was a wide seal, a rounded blister of a door set snugly in an arch of tarnished metal. A huge turncock was mounted in the center of the door. The whole installation was covered with runes, deeply notched into the surface.
Glaustus Apf and Spar had by this time settled into a terse working relationship. It was hard to face a hundred perils with another by your side and not develop at least a grudging respect for the other’s simple tenacity and endurance. Spar would not have judged the knight by human standards at any rate; Gorlen had no idea what he must have thought of the man. Knight and stonewight studied the door and conferred for long moments, Apf muttering, Spar making the sharp ticking sounds that escaped to common hearing when he whispered.
Finally Apf put up his hands and faced the somewhat reduced company.
“As you can see, we have attained our goal. There is no reason to think the chamber beyond will be any more welcoming than the rest of this accursed place, and already we have passed through the single most infernal and malicious set of contrivances any of us have had to confront. Therefore, good sirs, let me state that the lost and looted lord himself must surely have appreciated your many years of service. Should any of us fall today, we do not fall for naught. With the best possible outcome, we will reclaim some or all of the stolen treasure; but even in the worst of worlds, we will comport ourselves in an honorable manner. It has been my great privilege to have known you all.”
“I notice he made no such remarks before sending the lad into lava,” Gorlen said to the knight at his side.
The solemn veteran stared fixedly at the portal as Spar advanced on the large turncock—which appeared to be rusted and set from disuse—and began by degrees to turn it.
First came the spiders.
They boiled, scurried, scuttered from the runes and glyphs, as if they had been nesting there in the millions. They swarmed over Spar, biting and stinging, making a chitinous blur of him. Spar merely patted himself, shook them off, sent them flying. The knights reacted variously, with some unable to repress shrieks of deep-seated terror, while others methodically stamped, smashed, and crushed them. Gorlen remembered the birds with their nasty cargo and decided that the rooks themselves must have freshly filled the inner chambers of the door with these venomous vermin.
Spar continued to spin the cock.
Next, a seething deluge of scorpids, which were dealt with similarly.
These were followed by a seeping mist of poisonous green vapor, likewise flowing from the incised characters, which ate away and bubbled corrosively at any flesh it touched. In the confined corridor, it touched a great deal. Spar let out a surprising hiss of pain as the toxic mist bit into the blistered and spider-bit flesh of his one vulnerable hand; and the pained sound drew a pang of guilt from the bard, for his complicity in Spar’s one weak spot. He himself was spared the worst of the mist’s effect, for his captors kept him well in the rear. They were not such bad fellows after all, he thought with gratitude.
But then came the nightmares.
It might have been another form of vapor, an insect exudation, or some subtler emanation. All Gorlen knew was that suddenly a phantasmagorical wave swept over the gathering. The ranked knights trembled as if behind a waterfall’s sheeting transparency—wavered and drifted and changed. Men turned into monsters—or retained the faces of men but with the expressions of monsters. Some drew their weapons and turned on each other; others dropped their weapons and went at it with hands bare-nailed, gouging flesh and mouths. Gorlen’s captors were devils with faces of crumpled, torn bandages; masks through which old blood was seeping, caked over where eyes had been. One fiend seized his hair and began to pull as if it meant to rip away his scalp for a prize. His other guardian, now also a demonic shape, drew a knife and slashed at the first one’s fingers, freeing a snarl of Gorlen’s hair and a thumb besides.
A black shadow passed through his delirium. He felt a strong stone hand that pulled him bodily out of the delusion and into a quieter, saner place.
It was minutes before his vision settled back to anything resembling normal. He found himself and Spar crouching near the threshold of an unfamiliar chamber—so vast he could not see its extent. It was open to the sky. They were in the turret of the highest tower, a wide-open bowl or nest with walls of upthrust stone. This was the eyrie.