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Chapter 2: No Turning Back

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It happened when I was about halfway to the altar. My pant leg caught on something and as I looked down, my heart sank. A dirt-encrusted ivory hand slowly wrapped itself around my ankle. I easily shook it off, but the landscape was clearly moving. The endless pile of bones looked like a field of albino ferns blowing in a chaotic wind as a clacking spread and echoed in the spacious cavern. If there's one thing delvers like me fear, it's the gods damned undead.

Too many times had I seen this, but never on such a scale. I took a moment to spite the gods. It was fine that they’d plagued the world with unnecessarily powerful weapons and items of wonder to enlist mortals into their wars. I’d made good money recovering these relics. Cursing their gifts with immortality so their followers would fight even beyond death? Wasn’t the promise of unquestioning faith a peaceful existence in the afterlife? Gods were the worst, the lot of them!

My moment of grumbling was a moment I didn’t have. Skeletons started up slow but in these numbers, did it matter!? Where was I going to go? Just a second to scout my surroundings and I made my decision; I was an expert at this after all. Going back the way I came in was clearly out. Walking that path had woken up those undead first. Looking back, I could see quite a few nearly on their feet. I wasn’t going to reach my rope without an arduous climb anyway. The altar was the high point in the room and now that I was closer I could see it was mostly clear of bones.

Skeletons are a tough bunch, not afraid of anything, relentless, and… I was trying not to think about the third thing related to numbers. That’s not to say they couldn’t be destroyed. I pulled out two vials of holy water and sprayed it in a circle around me. The bones smoked and several shattered. I dodged as much as I could but still took a shard to the leg. Nothing serious. It was worth it to gain enough space to move. I drew my short staff from my belt. Hacking skeletons with swords would work, but it often took several swings to cut down just a single scrag. One well placed hit with the staff would shatter the foul thing, and I’d had mine enchanted with a little special something.

Initially, I was making good progress. The circle of holy water I’d laid down got me moving toward the altar. In front of me the creatures were still getting up, so it was a lot of kicking off hands and bashing skulls. Behind me, their numbers were working against them as they piled on top of each other to pursue me. And of all the luck, none seemed to have weapons, though they corrected that fast enough by picking up bones and rocks. After dodging a few I took a rock to the back of the head and fell. Word of advice: never fall into a pile of writhing undead.

Panic was a rare experience for me, but at least it pushed aside the severe disappointment I'd been feeling since I arrived in the chamber. Not much of an upside, if I have to be honest. As my mind clouded over, sharp bony fingers cut into my legs and chest. A hand pulled my head to the ground and moved for my right eye. Spite eclipsed panic and my one option became clear. On my staff, I found the trigger rune. It glowed brilliantly with a pulse of radiant energy. Curse you gods I was going to use your magic against you. I could feel some of the grip on my legs relax, but now the staff was being pulled from my hands. It hadn't been enough. I tried a second time. The staff pulsed again and the bony hand crushing my skull let go. I lifted my head enough to discover a horde of skeletons just steps away. Last chance. This trusty staff had been with me on how many adventures? Saved my life how many times? Good-by old friend. I held my finger to the rune and the staff burned my hand as it glowed so bright I was blinded for a moment. I quickly stood up, bright dots in my vision and ash covering my face. What skeletons hadn’t been disintegrated in the surrounding area, along with my staff, were writhing on the ground. I drew my short sword and dashed to the altar.

One last vile of holy water; I lobbed it at the altar as I approached, giving me a few seconds to survey the pedestal and then spin around to take in the room. As I had noticed earlier, the center of the room wasn't piled high with skeletons. A couple sat crumpled, now smoking and in pieces. Next to one lay a large gold and jeweled headpiece. I reflexively reached for it before noticing another body curled in a ball at the base of the altar. I pulled back… but something was different. Unlike all the others, this poor soul wore the remnants of proper clothing. A boot rotted on one bony foot and part of a black cloak wrapped around its torso like a blanket. Moreover, this body didn't move. Drops or holy water running off its naked skull like tears; no reaction at all. It was strangely comforting to know that one soul in this gods damned tomb was at rest.

I took my last stand over the peaceful body, pondering less on how few minutes I had to live before being ripped apart by the approaching wall of bones, and instead, I tried to puzzle out who this person was. Perhaps a delver like me who'd been lured in, only to suffer the same fate? That gave me a strange sense of peace, knowing I wouldn't turn out like the rest of these abominations. But something wasn't right. His bones were as old as the rest of them. Was he the lone dissenter, who interrupted the ritual and cursed them all?

I wasn't so lost in thought that I gave in to the mob. Everything I had for clearing tunnels and lighting paths I lit and threw at the unstoppable horde. I knew it would gain me no real-time, but the explosion brought me one last bloody smile.

A clacking woosh echoed thru the cavern. As the sound returned, the space created by the explosion was quickly filled by a wave of bone which crashed against the altar, throwing me to the ground. I slammed onto the unmoving skeleton below and hit something hard. Not bone. In its hand, crossed over its chest, was a dagger, no two daggers. As sharp fingers tore thru my clothing and ripped open my back I reached for the daggers as if they offered an escape from this impossible situation. I could not get my hands around the small hilt grasped tightly by the unmoving hand. I grabbed for the blade and…

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