The Artefact (Part 3)

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Albert and Verona stumbled into yet another room. A resounding crash was heard as the walls closed less than a metre behind them. Wordlessly, the two stopped running and bent over, panting. Silence, punctuated by the occasional drop of water, reigned in the rest of the room.

Once she had caught her breath, Verona lifted her flashlight and shone it around in order to figure out what dangers this room contained. She soon discovered that ‘room’ was the wrong word; ‘underground cavern’ was more accurate. Her powerful flashlight could not find the end of the deep caverns. The pair were standing on a wide paved road which turned left and then, straight as an arrow, disappeared into the depths of the cavern.  The road was lined with lifeless braziers which, on inspection, had naught but an empty bowl. Beyond this boundary of lost hope, the cavern seemed to be an immense natural cave, dotted with stalactites, stalactites and other natural formations.

“Follow the road?”

“Follow the road,” Verona confirmed. Albert hobbled forward on a blood-smeared leg, Verona supporting him. As they slowly progressed, she continued probing the darkness, searching for anything. As the light passed through the darkness into which the road led, a brief glimmer was seen. Verona returned her torch to point at where the glimmer had come from. It flashed again, a blue-purple glow brighter than before. With a click, Verona’s flashlight died, abruptly plunging the adventurers into darkness. Albert took out his and flicked the switch, re-illuminating the darkness. Yet, as he reached to pass his torch to Verona, its life too was taken. “Odd,” she commented.

Far down the path ahead of them, where the glimmer had been, a new source of light appeared. Flames of pink, purple and blue leapt up; large enough to be seen from the distance they were at. However, these silent flames provided only the faintest of light to their surroundings.

“This is it!” Albert said excitedly, his voice instinctually a whisper, “We’ve found it at last!” The professional raiders continued shuffling forward, their bets and scores long forgotten.

A gust of warm air on their backs and a presence behind them caused Verona to whirl around, drawing and firing her gun in one fluid movement. There was no sound or movement. She fired several more bullets in various directions. There was a metallic ping, as one bullet ricocheted off of a metal brazier.  Then silence, accompanied by the steady drip of water in the depths of the cavern, returned. Verona reloaded while Albert drew his own firearm. They then continued onward, Albert now supporting himself.

Finally the partners neared the flames, but – a dozen metres away from it – a reverberating mix of a growl and laugh filled the immense underground hollow, causing them to stop. “No mortal can handle an object of such power,” a deep voice issued from no particular direction, “You have come further than any before, but now you die; would-be thieves slain by the Keeper!”

Light spread forth as braziers burst into a golden flame in a rapid domino-effect. The owner of the voice dropped from above, landing surprisingly subtly on the now-lit road before them. It was not like any creature they had seen before; it had no static form. If one looked at it and thought they saw scales, they’d look again and see fur. One moment it had wings and four legs, the next it was bipedal.

Its ever-changing eyes locked with the adventurers’. “I represent all the creatures of this dimension. Puny humans shall not steal the heart of our world.” With that, it lunged at them.

“Show-off,” Albert commented and the two opened fire at the creature, running in either direction. Yet, patches of the beast’s form briefly solidified into multi-coloured scales. In moments the monster was upon them and, like clockwork, the partners holstered their guns and drew swords. The Keeper went first for Albert, who had to dodge the swipe of a claw, parry a stab from a scorpion tail and then swing his sword at beaked head.

While it was occupied by Albert, Verona did her best to attack from behind whilst avoiding the tail or tails. She managed to get up close, though every time she swung at fur or feather, her blade either met a tougher hide or bounced off. She decided that the time for caution had gone and leapt onto the back of the creature. Once there, she grabbed a spine to stabilise herself. Before she lost her balance, Verona quickly lifted her sword in both hands and plunged it at the base of a rapidly-vanishing left wing. An ear-splitting yowl was heard and blood swelled around the wound. Looking up, she saw Albert long enough to smile at him and to see his return the smile containing the silent message, we can do this.

But that brief lapse in concentration was a fatal mistake. Verona lost her balance as the monster shook. A bladed tail swung at her, lashing across her belly and sending her flying. Disorientated, she crashed to the ground, hearing only a dull thud. There she lay – the world spinning purple, blue, black and gold around her. A war cry from Albert broke her out of the vertigo and allowed her to gain her bearings. She was metres away from the massive blue and pink flames, the heart of which must be the artefact they were after. She looked at herself, a large cut in her abdomen and a red stain quickly spreading across her torn shirt. She would have to worry about binding it later. If she could just get the artefact, they might still win this… She crawled forward, gritting her teeth in pain, toward the centre of the whispering flames.

At last she found an orb, about 15 centimetres in diameter, standing upon a stone pedestal with unnatural flames bursting forth. A howl of pain was heard, followed by the clattering of a metal object on stone. Panicked, she lifted herself with the pedestal as a support. She then reached for the orb and grabbed it.

Immediately her head was flooded with voices; reprimanding her for trying to take what was not hers, showing her the beauty of what she had attempted to destroy and trying to convince her that what she had done was wrong. Verona resisted at first, trying to free herself – but she could not let go. Eventually she had to give up, to accept what they said and understand their perspective. Blue, purple and pink flames began consuming her body. Before the world faded to darkness, she rolled over and caught a last glimpse of the cavern: the Keeper in a cat-like form, licking its back, and a limp human form lying on the road surrounded by a crimson pool…

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