By Christopher Pennington.
Winner of the April 2019 TDE Fiction Competition.
Delicately she threaded the wire through a small crack in the stone. Blood still seeped from the bandages wrapped around her palm, and she inhaled deeply and held her breath as she looped the ring around the new trigger mechanism. The light in this portion of the ruin and its position on the steps made the tripwire almost impossible to see; it had never failed to go off.
Once on her feet she bounded neatly over the low wire and down the stairs to the carnage below. Above her the visage of some primordial demon was scrawled onto the ceiling, grinning with far too many teeth. Three had died here— more than usual— while two had pressed on to meet their fates further into the structure. The leader, a potbellied dverg with a mouth foul enough make a Sorrian blush, found a loud and ghastly end when a hidden slide had opened and crushed him under ponderous old-world detritus she thought to be some kind of ammunition. The Berengeii, true to his kind, had died better but smelled worse. Truly, these had been amateurs. Others had made it much deeper.
Bending over one of the bodies at the base of the stairs, she plucked a grenade and a heavy silver disk from a belt with practiced ease. One woman wore a feather bracelet which shimmered and found its way onto her wrist. It took some time to strip the corpses of their valuables and dispose of the bodies, but time she had in abundance. Once, crews would come with the turn of every full moon; now, months could pass before intrepid feet came once more to her door. It seemed the legend of this place had faded.
Esme flexed her hand. So, perhaps, had she.
Most of what she took was generic enough to trade at the market in Sander’s Bluff, and she set aside those pieces that might be easily identifiable to those that knew this crew. These she would save for the salvage traders, or use herself for improvements and repairs. For two nights Esme labored under the light of the low, heavy moon and a flickering power lamp, weaving through corridors emblazoned with sigils and strange markings, the ruin an otherworldly mix of pre-Fall perfection and the madness of what came after. Once, she suspected the building had been a research facility of sorts, connected in some way to the deep lake it stood alongside. Now the lake had risen to swallow it, twist it, and what leaned up from the water was a shattered, obstructed death trap, known as the Edict. That in the days after the Fall some apocalyptic cult had made a den of the place did little for its navigability and safety but much for its renown. She did not know how long it had lain empty since that time. For the past seven years, however, a new ghost had whispered through the halls.
Today that ghost groaned as she hauled the load to refill and seal the slide, cleared and arranged bodies for show, and prepared for the journey to the Bluff. That voyage did not lack in danger, but she had built herself enough shortcuts and shelters over time that she no longer thought much of it. Before long she was back home with a meager haul.
Home. How absurd it was to use the word in such a place.
For months the Edict lay quiet. When the troodon jerky ran low Esme took to the cliffs and the lowlands and stalked through the nights. Her hand was healing poorly and the bow trembled as she aimed, and so she was forced to use the old energy pistol that made far too much noise. It was on one of these nights, long after she had begun to feel a sort of desperation, that she came across the abandoned camp and tracks that told her that a new crew had set out for the Edict. She scrambled along cliffsides, up hidden vines, and back to her vantage to watch for their approach.
Not knowing the way, they were a day behind her, and four in number. A woman, a redhead, was clearly in charge, with two men, one mohawked and one stout and swarthy, and a great gray Berengeii in tow. To their credit, they assessed the Edict for hours before they at last made the approach over water, climbed the jutting edifice, and descended into the yawning maw of rubble that allowed for entrance into the lower reaches. Esme would follow them in time, once they were clear of the entry and the initial traps, to monitor their progress. Some turned back after the first tripwire and finding herself in the midst of them would be ill-advised at best. And so she waited, sharpening the blade of her dagger, and listened for the explosion.
It never came.
At first Esme thought they were perhaps overly cautious, and slow, but further moments passed and she could only conclude that they had managed to bypass the initial danger. She hurried along behind them with what quiet she could muster, wondering if this was luck or something worse, when she heard the deep thrum of the slide emptying its deadly burden. Luck, then. Swiftly she crept through ducts and shafts and hidden corridors that she had come to know like the drum of rain on the lake at night. Although many sigils were scrawled upon the walls and doors— serpents, unknown warnings, owls, eyes, faces, teeth— she always followed the owl. These, along with many of the traps within the halls, were a product of the deranged minds that had taken residence here after the Fall. Often, she wondered whether they were for self defense, or to protect whatever lay in the vaultfrom that which was outside.
Or was it the other way around?
“Saw something similar in the Junction once.” A female voice, ahead but near: the redhead. “These old fools shed a lot of blood fearing the end of the world. No one told them it already ended.”
She sounded rather unconcerned to have just endured the slide, and when Esme rounded into the next hallway she saw why: the trap had triggered uneventfully, and the door beyond was open. It must have been set off intentionally. Past the door the slant of the structure was obvious, with an uncomfortable pitch to the floor and a clear sense of descent. Everywhere rubble was strewn and structural damage allowed access to crawlspaces and wall cavities. Backtracking slightly, she slipped into one of these and edged forward somewhere between wall and ceiling, peeking through cracks and moving slowly, waiting to gain sight of the crew. They had navigated several corridors more, and more concerning, had not veered from the correct path. Within the Edict was an endless web of passages that led to nowhere but doom.
At last Esme saw them. The Berengeii was struggling to squeeze through a half-open door that had lacked power for centuries, and painfully spilled out, rubbing where tufts of fur had torn off in the battle. They were heavily armed, with bows, pistols, and assault rifles among them in addition to tools suitable for hand-to-hand combat. Without speaking the group continued down the hall to an intersection. To the left was the mark of the serpent, the owl to the right. Without a break in her stride the woman pointed right and led the group on to the next barrier, this one a heavy containment door.
The mohawked man patted around the edges of the door, tapped the derelict control panel, and turned to the swarthy fellow. “Work a little magic, Kit.”
A wary silence prevailed while the man did his work. Deftly he disassembled the control panel and knelt splicing wires and pairing various couplers into myriad devices in his possession until at last a shrill alert sounded and the door slid suddenly ajar. Kit folded up his tools and stepped through, eyeing the passage beyond.
“Knew we paid you for something,” said the mohawked man, stepping past him.
Kit’s arm shot out and held the other man back. “Corian.” He nodded at the ceiling ahead. In it the sharpened metal tip of a ram protruded slightly from one of the ceiling tiles. Deeper in the hallway a body lay slumped over, decay having set in long ago. Kneeling, Kit added, “Pressure sensor.” He squinted and pointed a short distance. “There.”
Corian whistled. “You might have just earned a bonus, partner.”
The group naturally stepped back together behind the frame of the door they had just passed through, taking what looked to be a safe distance. The Berengeii hefted a chunk of rubble and swung it back, then forth, then back, readying to toss it ahead to trigger the sensor.
Esme smiled. This one she had seen in action only a time or two.
The rubble slid noisily forward, seemingly in slow motion, until the floor depressed and emitted a worrisome hiss. For a moment the group stood transfixed, watching as the metal spike beyond did precisely nothing.
The one behind them, however— much more precisely crafted and recessed so as not to draw the wary eye— released immediately, breaking through the ceiling in an explosion of shards and dust and hurtling with murderous speed for the intruders. The redhead was already sprinting forward, reacting with near-impossible speed. Despite being positioned toward the back she was now neck-and-neck with Kit as the rest of the crew dashed ahead.
The ram was too fast, and with a backward glance the Berengeii seemed to register this. With a great bellow he heaved himself about, grasped the tip of the thing in mid air as it barreled toward him, and planted his huge feet as he hit the floor, driving up clouds of dust as his strength battled the device’s momentum. It drove him along the floor, hardly slowing. As it did so Kit and the woman took a simultaneous step onto a second pressure plate, some short distance beyond the first. Again the woman’s seemingly preternatural instinct took over and she dropped and slid forward with what momentum she still carried, evading a trio of metal spikes that shot from a spring-loaded mechanism concealed within the wall.
Kit fared worse. The spikes drove into and out of him with merciless speed, embedding in the opposite wall, and he collapsed quickly to the floor. The moment seemed oddly silent until the entire structure shuddered as the body of the ram collided with the door frame and hurled the Berengeii onward, rolling him end-over-end until a pile of debris abruptly stopped his progress. Corian stood blinking behind. Everywhere dust floated, shaken loose in the impact, and the Edict groaned as it swayed gently.
Recovering himself, Corian raced to Kit and knelt, but the cause was lost. The chaos provided enough opportunity for Esme to creep forward in the alcoves between the walls and ceiling. A gentle lapping echoed, and she watched as the remaining crew realized that around the next bend the slanting corridor was entirely submerged. Within that water lay the vault, but the passage of centuries had yet to see it open. Crouched, Esme patted a spherical device at her hip. That was unlikely to change today.
The redhead had turned back from the passage and was looking intently at the wall where the shards had embedded. In addition to the spikes now protruding there were several additional holes in a roughly similar pattern. She took a few steps toward the body, one of many which Esme had propped about for show, and nudged it over with a foot. The clothing and the desiccated flesh showed a row of three clean punctures. She then waved the Berengeii toward her and paced to the crack in the wall where the dart mechanism sat.
“What?” asked the Berengeii, after a long moment there.
Suddenly the woman turned on her heel and drew the Berengeii’s great wide-barreled pistol from his holster, loosing a shot before Esme could so much as stand. The impact blew apart the very structure on which Esme knelt and it fell away under her, spilling her neatly out into the corridor below, perhaps ten paces from the others.
Esme did not lack for instinct. She turned the tumble into a roll as neatly as she could, brought herself to her knees, drew her own pistol from her hip and leveled it cleanly at the woman’s head, then pulled the trigger.
The redhead did not even flinch. Instead a gray mass shoved itself in front of her, taking the impact. Snarling, the Berengeii lunged forward, knocking away Esme’s sidearm with one hand while wrapping the other entirely around her delicate human throat. It was a small effort indeed for him to suspend her by it some distance in the air.
Esme’s neck muscles tightened and strained and she felt herself grow lightheaded. Spittle from the heaving thing’s mouth spattered her face, mixing with its heavy breath and the smell of smoldering fur where the energy pistol had made its mark. A few quiet footsteps echoed as the woman stepped slowly out from behind the beast, watching Esme closely. She nodded toward the submerged path ahead. “Is it still down there?” She patted the Berengeii’s arm, which lowered but did not release its grip.
“Yes,” Esme managed.
“I think you know what good you are to me if you lie. How many more of these surprises of yours?”
Esme understood the calculus here. “One,” she gasped. “In the water. It sleeps more often than not, but I wake it when necessary.”
The redhead pulled the spherical depth charge from Esme’s belt. “I see. How long have you been here? I’ve known crews to come this way for five years or more. Heard many stories.”
“Seven,” she said flatly.
“Couldn’t go back. Was part of a crew that found this place, years back. The blast that flooded this corridor killed the rest of us. We were in a lot of trouble and a lot of debt to the wrong people. Tried to open the vault myself.” She shook her head. “Couldn’t go back.”
“What wrong people?” asked the redhead, nodding.
“Boss Jinju, mostly. Others.”
The three intruders shared a look. “Jinju’s dead. Probably six months now.” She arched an eyebrow. “You didn’t know?”
“News travels a little slow in these parts. And those aren’t the kinds of questions I wanted to be seen asking.”
“Then I’ll give you that one as a favor.” The woman’s smile was fetching, but her eyes were sharp and behind them lay a cold calculation. “Repay it and this may not end as poorly as you think.” She looked at the paired bodies on the floor. “After all, it seems we may have an opening.”
With that she extended a hand.