“To hell with this,” you mutter, uncoiling the rope and grapnel from your belt.
“What are you doing?” says Lucan.
“The only time I’ve ever beaten the magi,” you say, “is when I refused to play by their rules.”
You throw the grapnel, and after a few tries it catches on the lintel of the far archway. You secure it to the doorway on your side, as taut as you can make it. Then you take a deep breath, wrap your arms and legs around the rope, and start climbing.
Your mind might be damaged, but your arms and legs are in good condition. You crawl along the rope, and reach the other side of the chamber without incident. You drop down to the floor, and Lucan crawls along the rope and joins you after a few moments.
“You’re going to get him killed,” murmurs your father’s voice, “you’ll get to watch him die, you’ll…”
“Shut up,” you say.
Lucan frowns. “I’m sorry?”
“Not you,” you say. “Voices in my head.”
“You should kill him when you’re finished,” says the voice of Halfdan, your old mentor. “He is useful, yes. But a liability. You must be hard and cold. Kill him once you have slain Sophia and destroyed Korthion.”
“They go away,” says Lucan, “when you put up your shadow-cloak’s cowl?”
“Maybe you aren’t going insane,” says Lucan. “Maybe Korthion put another spell on you, one that Sophia didn’t mention. Or Sophia herself did it, and forget to mention it to Korthion or to you.”
That…is an extremely disturbing thought. Though you’re not sure what either Korthion or Sophia could hope to gain by putting half-crazed voices inside your head.
“Then let’s keep going,” you say. “If this Ascendant Bloodcrystal can really break any spell, then it should break whatever spell’s on my mind. Assuming there is one.”
Lucan nods, and he follows you deeper into the darkness below the mountain. You pass a half-dozen more mechanical traps, and one more sorcerous ward. The sorcery-induced tingling against your skin gets worse. The air is motionless, but as you walk, your shadow-cloak starts to stir and ripple, as if caught in an ghostly wind.
It only does that in the presence of transcendentally powerful sorcery. The sort of sorcery that can destroy cities.
Finally the passage ends in a vast chamber of natural rock. The walls plummet in a sheer drop to a cold, motionless lake a hundred feet below. A narrow bridge, a slender beam of stone, extends high over the lake, to a broad pillar of worked stone that rises from the waters.
The pale green glow comes from something atop the pillar.
You make your away along the narrow bridge, careful to keep your footing on the wet stone.
The top of the pillar forms a platform about thirty feet across. On the center of the platform stands a stone throne, and upon that throne sits a withered corpse, clad in purple-and-black Imperial robes, a silver dagger and sword resting upon his lap.
The Emperor Anacepheon, or what’s left of him.
Before the throne stands a table of black marble, and upon the table rests a fist-sized chunk of crystal the color of dried blood, a green glow flickering in its depths.
The Ascendant Bloodcrystal.
Your cloak billows out behind you, as if you stood in a gale, but the air remains still.
You’ve never seen anything so beautiful, so radiant. It fills your vision, and every fiber of your body yearns with anticipation. You want to take it up, to use it, to fulfill its purpose, and you want that more than anything you’ve ever wanted…
After a moment you realize that Lucan is holding your wrists, talking to you.
“Caina,” he says. “Caina!”
You blink. “What?”
“I…don’t think you should touch that thing,” he says.
Your mind starts to work again. “You…don’t feel that?”
“No,” says Lucan. “My head hurts when I look at it, but you had this expression on your face…I really don’t think we should touch it.”
For a moment, just a moment, you consider twisting out his grip and claiming the Ascendant Bloodcrystal before he can stop you.
That alone makes up your mind.
“You’re right,” you say, voice ragged. “Maybe…if we wrap it in my cloak, or your coat…”
“Maybe we should leave the damned thing down here,” says Lucan. “Maybe Sophia was telling the truth, it can break Korthion’s spell over her. But I’ll wager it can do quite a few other things as well. None of them good.”
A stray thought clicks in your mind. The magi sent Scarpian and the Kindred assassins to kill Sophia and Korthion, once they learned that Korthion sought the Ascendant Bloodcrystal. And the magi love power, more than they love anything else.
Yet for all that…they were willing to leave the Ascendant Bloodcrystal buried in Anacepheon’s tomb.
They were afraid of it.
You start to speak, and then a noise captures your attention.
The corpse on the throne just took a long, ragged breath. Its eyelids open with a sound like crackling parchment, and a pair of blue eyes stare at you, moist and bloodshot in that desiccated face.
“No!” rasps the corpse, lifting its hands. “No! Do not!”