As the elevator descended toward the lower vaults, Doug glanced around at the others. Professor Kohaku, Dries Aken, Shiori, Avalon, Sands, Vanessa, and himself. They were the ones who were left to make the run for the vault. Everyone else was occupied, keeping most of the bad guys busy. Gaia, Gabriel Prosser, Professor Dare, so many powerful people who were solely focused, at that moment, on keeping the way to the vault as clear as possible. Even Grandpa Sulan was with Prosser’s group, along with Jazz and Gordon. If Doug couldn’t be with his (former?) teammates, he was glad that his great-great-grandfather could.
And who was he here with? The man who killed Hieronymous Bosch. The greatest traitor and murderer in Crossroads history, in Heretic history. One of the most infamous people who had ever lived, as far as Heretics were concerned. There was no single human being regarded more hatefully or as more of a monster by Heretics than the man who had murdered Bosch. Even now, knowing everything he actually knew, Doug could still feel that instinctive anger that came from so many years of hearing the stories about Dries Aken. Instead of trying to suppress it, he redirected it. He used that anger and pointed it toward all the lies that he’d been told throughout his life, all the lies that his entire family going back generations had been told.
That made it easier to not be so fucking scared right in that moment. Using the anger he felt about all of that and pointing it to this situation. The anger helped cover the terror.
Dries seemed to notice him staring, because the man’s head abruptly whipped around to face him as the elevator descended. His eyes were wild, and he demanded, “Are we enemies?”
“Err, wh-what?” Doug stammered, taken aback by that. “Uh, no? No, it’s just… I’ve heard a lot of lies about you and all that, so it’s kind of a big deal to meet you. I mean, I know it’s not true, but still, seeing you like this… I…” He tried to think of how to explain the whole ‘transferring anger to cover up his own fear’ thing, but it suddenly sounded stupid, so he clamped his mouth shut.
“It’s okay, Douglas,” Professor Kohaku calmly and knowingly informed him. “Everyone is afraid of what might happen next. Just remember, you are not alone. Stay with the others. The goal is the vault. Let me handle the worst of what we run into while you focus on getting to the vault.” Raising her voice a bit then to address everyone, she added, “You all remember the way?”
“Straight, straight, right, left, straight, straight, right, straight, straight, right.” Avalon was the one who spoke, but Doug ran the whole thing through silently in his head as well. Gaia had made sure they all memorized the exact route through what apparently was a labyrinth to get to the right vault. Doug had spent more time repeating the directions back than he had spent on actual schoolwork in the past couple months.
It would be just great, to pull all this off and then end up getting held back a year because his grades had suffered. Absurd as the thought was, considering how involved the actual headmistress was in all of this, it still made the boy swallow a bit at the thought. Another distraction, another thing to focus on instead of worrying about what was going to happen once the elevator reached the bottom of this apparently long descent.
Abruptly, a different distraction presented itself in the form of a clanking noise. It was faint, and came from the top of the elevator. For a moment, Doug almost thought that he might have imagined it, until he saw that the others had all looked up as well. They glanced toward the faint sound just as it came again, event fainter that time.
What wasn’t quiet, however, was Kohaku’s reaction. Her hand snapped up, and a pale green forcefield suddenly appeared over their heads. An instant later and with no further warning, something horrific dove through the roof of the elevator. A ghost of some kind. The thing was terrifying, its semi-translucent face looking equal parts rotted and melted. Holes in its throat revealed the inside, flaps of skin in its face showed muscles and gums, and one of its eyes was melted shut like a wax candle. Worse, the thing dove through with no warning other than those two very faint clanking sounds, rebounding off the shield that Kohaku had put up.
At a quick, sharp gesture from Kohaku, the part of the forcefield that the ghost had rebounded off of suddenly elongated into a blade, stabbing into the creature. With a terrifying shriek that half-deafened Doug and the others, the ghost exploded into what looked like blue-gray slime that splattered all over the ceiling of the elevator.
“More coming,” Kohaku snapped sharply. With one hand, she held out a bag. “You know what to do.”
Because of course Gaia and the others wouldn’t send them in unprepared for this kind of thing. Doug produced his pen, clicking it once to create a spear. As the weapon appeared in his hand, he reached into the bag that Kohaku was offering, taking out a bit of cloth before pushing it against the tip of the spear. On the cloth was a spell rune made up of a triangle surrounding a circle, while nine curly lines emerged from the triangle, three on each side. Between each of those lines was a diagonal equals sign, each pointing up and to the right of the whole thing, toward a second symbol that looked like an infinity symbol drawn around the handle of an upside down pitchfork.
The spell, once activated, would allow the target object to actually affect ghosts and other intangible creatures for the following fifteen minutes. It was one of several bits of preparation that Gaia and the other adults that made sure to have ready since there was no way for them to know exactly what the Seosten would throw at them as they neared the vault. Aside, of course, from ‘every fucking thing they possibly could.’
The others around him were doing the same, aside from Avalon, as her gauntlet’s energy constructs could already affect things like ghosts. Kohaku, meanwhile, produced what looked like two batons. Each was only a little over a foot long. Rather than hold them by one end, however, the woman held each in the middle. At a button press, a sharp metal blade appeared from both ends of both batons. Four blades in total, each with various runes inscribed along them. And at a touch from Kohaku, each gave off a soft glow.
Dries, meanwhile, hadn’t been sitting on his hands. The man took a small lens, like one from a telescope, and brushed his thumb over it while murmuring something. Then he threw the lens at the ground, shattering it. As he did so, the walls, floor, and ceiling of the lift abruptly became just as partially translucent as the ghosts themselves were. Doug could see the shaft they were dropping through. Not that there was that much to see, aside from a few other lifts (where they went, he wasn’t sure and was kind of confused by) and the blank metal walls of the shaft.
Oh, and the ghosts. Lots of ghosts. The creatures were flying all around them. Above, below, to the sides, the whole shaft was flooded with the creatures.
“Columbus was right,” Doug found himself muttering, “we should’ve brought our necromancer.”
“I don’t think she’s ready for ghosts yet,” Shiori pointed out while holding one of her frisbee-disc things in either hand. Her eyes were snapping around, watching for the first of the horde of clearly malevolent (or at least malevolently targeted, since it probably wasn’t fair to blame them for whatever the being directing them had ordered) spirits to make a move.
“Douglas, watch the floor,” Kohaku started. “Avalon, that wall. Sands, that wall. Vanessa, behind us. Shiori, straight ahead. I’ll watch the ceiling. Mr. Aken, try to back up anyone who needs it. Thirty seconds before we reach the bottom, so they’ll be–now!”
Sure enough, the ghosts were coming. Doug’s attention snapped quickly to the floor, just in time to see two of the creatures flying straight up toward them. He readied his spear, muttering a quick series of curses under his breath. Then the first ghost was there, shoving itself up through the floor while grabbing for his ankle. Instantly, Doug stabbed his spear down into the thing’s head. It shrieked and withdrew, but there wasn’t time to celebrate, because the second ghost had already grabbed onto Vanessa’s leg and was trying to yank her down before Doug stabbed it as well. It took two more quick jabs before the thing exploded into foul-smelling goo.
All around him, more ghosts were attacking from every side. He felt one snatch hold of his elbow from the side just before Sands slammed her mace through the thing. Nearby, Shiori was yanked backward with one ghost’s arm around her neck, until Avalon killed it with a quick swipe of her humming energy blade.
Thirty seconds. They just had to keep doing this for thirty seconds. Well, thirty seconds until they were let out of the elevator. There was no reason to think that the ghosts would leave them alone after that. But there would be more room to maneuver, at least.
More ghosts. More stabbing. Doug couldn’t focus on any other spot, couldn’t think about what anyone else was doing. He was too busy keeping dozens of ghosts away from the floor of the elevator. They just kept coming. No matter how fast he stabbed with his spear, more appeared. Some of the ones he struck howled and withdrew, while others exploded. Before that thirty seconds was half-over, the entire floor was covered in their ectoplasm.
All around him, the others were in the same position. He was jostled back and forth, elbowed in the side, and even had Sands’ arm smack against the side of his head accidentally as she swung for another ghost. There wasn’t enough room here, and the ghosts were flooding the elevator from all sides. There had to be hundreds of the things.
At least they weren’t the strong kind. There were several types of ghosts, and the stronger versions would have completely overrun them in these kinds of numbers. The fact that these ones were so relatively easy to kill and didn’t set off any kind of Heretic pleasure sense when they were killed meant they were the lowest tier of ghost. Barely capable of following instructions. Which, in this case, seemed to be ‘attack everyone in that elevator’.
Still, it was only thirty seconds. Thirty of the longest seconds in all of existence that hadn’t literally been magically extended, but only thirty seconds. They made it, finally, the doors opening to let them out into a octagonal-shaped room, with different hallways along each ‘side’ of the octagon aside from the one where their elevator was.
The fight spilled out into that open room, until Dries stepped forward and put a rock he had been scribbling a rune onto against the elevator. He spoke a single word, and the stone crumbled to dust. At the same time, what looked like a massive burst of electricity shot up along the walls of the elevator, disappearing through the shaft with an echoing boom.
Silence came then. The ghosts had stopped. Doug doubled over a bit, catching his breath while staring warily at the elevator. “What–what was–”
“No more.” Dries was tapping the side of his head. “G-gone. Gone. They’re gone, and they’re not… they’re not… they won’t be here.” He nodded rapidly, his attention shifting to the floor while he shuffled back and forth on his feet, clearly uncomfortable with everyone staring at him.
“Thanks, man,” Doug finally managed, not wanting to stress the poor guy out even more, but not wanting to say nothing either. “That was cool.”
“Indeed,” Kohaku agreed. “Very cool.”
That said, the woman immediately turned away from the elevator. “We need to keep moving. Is everyone good?” She gave the group a quick once over, taking a moment to check a bit of blood on Vanessa’s arm that ended up being a deep cut. It would heal, however, and Kohaku placed a quick bandage on it to stop the bleeding. “Okay, let’s go.”
Their notes said to go straight, so the group took the hallway directly across from the elevator doors. The floor was some kind of white polished stone with little purple swirls in them, while the walls were more violet. As they entered that first corridor (which was wide enough for Kohaku, Avalon, and Shiori to jog side by side in the lead), Doug could see white double-doors set on either side, each several feet apart. There were labels above each door with either a family name or, in some cases, an alphanumeric code.
The first junction came up, with a corridor cutting across their path. Again, they went straight, before making a right a few seconds later at the next one. Then a left. Unfortunately, just as Doug made the mistake of thinking that they might have a clear shot at the vault after all, trouble found them again. Or rather, they found it, in the form of a figure standing in their path at the next junction, where they were supposed to go straight.
He was a Seosten. That much was clear, from the bodysuit that he wore, to his darkly handsome features, to the arrogant look in his gaze as he stared them down. Along his throat and apparently up over the back of his neck was a long tattoo of a coiling snake. The man’s head was bald, though not bare, as the head of that snake tattoo was visible there, with its eyes facing them from his forehead.
“Oh,” Sands muttered as they came to a brief stop. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this guy.”
The Seosten held that glare for a moment, before his expression abruptly shifted into a broad smile. “Hey there, good job getting this far. I mean seriously, I’m pretty sure no one thought you’d make it, which is why they don’t have an Olympian down here. Hell, you even cut through my ghosts, you’re keeping my zombies busy, and you blocked me from contacting anyone on the outside. Bravo. No, really, congratulations. But you see, I can’t let you go any further. I just… it’s my boss, you know? He can be a real pain in the ass and if you get by me…” He whistled low, shaking his head. “I’ll be in… I think you call it deep shit? Deep shit.”
His hand waved dismissively then, as the man informed them, “But I’ll tell you what. If you turn around and go back the way you came, we’ll just let bygones be bygones. No hard feelings, you gave it your best shot. Just walk away.”
Kohaku’s voice was quiet as she watched the man. “I’ll handle him. The rest of you go on to the vault.” With those words, she started to walk that way deliberately, spinning the two-bladed baton-daggers in each hand.
In response, the Seosten man cracked his neck before tapping each arm of his bodysuit in turn. At his touch, a pair of gauntlets appeared. Along the outside of each gauntlet was a long, sharp blade that ran the length of his forearm from fist to elbow. Meanwhile, a pair of electrified whips extended from the end of the gauntlets, crackling with energy.
“Well,” he announced, “if you insist on doing it the hard way.”
“Go!” Kohaku ordered while sprinting to meet the man. She dodged around one of his whips as it was sent toward her, leaving behind some kind of shadow-clone that lasted just long enough to kick the whip out of the way before falling into ashes.
Doug and the others didn’t need to be told twice. Even as Kohaku reached her target, blades colliding with his, they were already running. Avalon, Shiori, Sands, Vanessa, Dries, and Doug sprinted down that hall.
Unfortunately, the Seosten wasn’t just going to let them go. Ducking away from a swing from Kohaku, he extended his hand after them. “Sic ‘em, boy.”
At those words, as Doug looked over his shoulder that way, he saw the man’s snake tattoo come to life. Springing off the man’s head while solidifying, the blue-green snake rushed after them.
“Heh,” Sands started, “it’s a snake, are we really supposed to b–”
Before she could finish that sentence, the snake abruptly grew. Not a little bit, a lot. In a blink, the snake was suddenly large enough that it barely fit in the corridor. And it was coming very quickly. Worse, there was some kind of green smoke coming from its mouth that seemed to melt through the walls around it.
Cursing violently, Sands whipped back around. “I changed my mind, go, go, go!”
“He’s like Larees!” Vanessa blurted, even as they ran, keeping straight once more at the next intersection.
“Not enough like Larees!” Doug pointed out, already snatching his pen once more as they ran past the next section. They were supposed to turn right there, but there wasn’t time. The snake was right behind them. Right behind them. Doug could feel its acidic breath practically melting his shoes, could hear its hissing. “Avalon, don’t you talk to snakes now? Can you–”
“Not working!” the girl blurted back at him. “Probably because it’s not a real snake! It’s magic!”
Cursing, Sands waved her mace, creating a wall behind them. It lasted only a couple seconds before the snake’s acid breath melted through it enough for the creature to burst through. If anything, it seemed even bigger somehow. And angrier.
They kept running, until Sands finally made a dozen quick walls in a row at another intersection. Then she tapped her mace against the actual corridor wall before moving to make another wall over the right-hand corridor. The new constructed wall was made of the same material as the rest of the hall, so it blended in well enough to hide that there was a corridor there at all.
“Quick,” Sands blurted even as they heard the snake coming through the walls she’d thrown in its path. “Over here.” She waved to the left-hand corridor. “We hide behind another wall on that side, let our new friend keep going down the hall, then–” She made another three walls in rapid succession to keep the snake busy. “Then we go back the way we came and find the vault.”
“It’ll notice too fast,” Doug pointed out. “Then we’ll be in the same position. Someone needs to lure it away. I’ll–”
“Someones,” Vanessa corrected him. She looked to the others. “Doug and I can do this. You guys hide. Wait for the snake to chase us, then get to that vault.”
“I… yeah.” Doug tried not to look too relieved that he wouldn’t be by himself, though he still flashed the girl a brief grateful look. Then his hand gestured to the nearby wall, where a faint pen mark was visible. “I drew a line the whole way up here, since we passed that last turn. If you follow it back to where it starts, then turn left at that spot, you’ll be on for straight, straight, right.”
Sands, who had been remaking walls over and over again as fast as she could while backpedaling as the snake kept breaking through them, blurted, “Running out of room here, guys!”
There was no more time to discuss it. Avalon, Dries, and Shiori moved quickly to the other corridor. Sands joined them, blurting, “Good luck.” Then she made another wall, blocking them off and leaving Vanessa and Doug standing in the corridor alone.
“Ready to run some more?” Doug asked the girl beside him.
“We better be,” she replied, already starting to back pedal at the sound of the last constructed walls crumbling. The final one melted under the acidic breath, before the snake’s massive head slammed through. “Because here it comes!”
The snake hissed in a mixture of fury and triumph at having found them, lunging just as Vanessa and Doug both leapt back. The two turned, sprinting away with the snake right on their heels. They left the others behind, hopefully so that they would reach the vault.
But at the moment, Doug and his companion had other things to worry about.
Like not being eaten by a massive snake. That sounded like a good place to start.