Thursday, April 12, 2012

Handmaidens of Petra: The Pool

“You’ve all kept this from the Baron? She could be--”
“She’s our friend!” Jasna spat. “It doesn’t matter what she ‘could be.’
Justin glanced down at his hand. “Ixion’s fire, she bit me!” His grip tightened on the hilt, as he looked up at the girl.
Brynne’s hand closed over his wrist. Jasna stepped in front of Petra, her own hand resting on the hilt of the silvery blade at her hip.

“How can you defend a--”
“A friend?” Jasna’s fingers closed over the blade.
“Stop this, all of you,” Katarin said.
“He started it!”
“Take your hands off your weapons,” Katarin ordered. “We are not orcs, this will not be settled with blood.”
“You would prefer using your witchery?” Justin asked.
“I can hit him pretty good from here,” Brynne said.
Katarin sighed. “I couldn’t weave if I wanted to. What little power I have left to me I must conserve. I will not spend it mending wounds either of you inflict on each other.”
Jasna and Justin stared at each other a moment longer, then the girl’s fingers slowly uncurled from around the hilt of her knife. Justin’s fingers did the same from his sword hilt.
“We will not survive this dungeon if we don’t all work together,” Katarin said. “Agreed?”
Heads nodded.
“So, here is what we will do. We will table this… discussion… until we make our way back to the shores of the lake. We will carry on until we find… whatever the artifact is that is hidden here.”
“It’s supposed to be Halav’s shield or sword,” Petra said.
“There will be no hostilities between us,” Katarin said, glancing at each of her friends. “Are we so agreed? I do swear this upon my medallion, may Petra take her vengeance upon me if I do so break this oath.”
“I do so swear,” Brynne said, her hand not moving from the young lord’s wrist.
“As do I,” Jasna said, fishing her own medallion out from beneath her tunic.
“As do I,” Petra said, her own hand clenched around her medallion. She itched at her palm as she released the silver disk, deepening the red mark left on her skin by the contact with the metal.
“Look at that,” Justin said. “How can you… How can I trust her?”
“My hands do the same when I touch itchweed,” Katarin said. “It’s a reaction to the metal, not the oath itself. Do we have your word that you will keep truce against Petra?”
Justin sighed. “You do.” He stood up straighter, holding a hand over his heart. “I do swear it upon my honor.”
“How do we know we can trust you?” Jasna asked.

“The corridor is that way,” Justin said, pointing towards the doorway through which they’d stumbled.
Petra looked up from where she squatted on the floor, two pieces of paper laid next to each other. Rather than words, each had inked lines and symbols on them, a crude layout of the temple. She looked from one to the other, and again at the wall, opposite the corner where she’d been huddled.
“It should be here, somewhere,” she said.
“No, it’s there,” the young lord said, pointing again.
“Not that.” She waved her hand dismissively, then poked at the two maps. “This. Here. Look, we’re here. See this? This is the chapel, with all the ants in it. And here is the Corridor of Knowledge.” She traced her finger down a long corridor, crossed by two long breaks.
“That must be where the ceiling fell in,” Brynne said, pointing at the top of the long hallway.
Petra looked up. “The ceiling?”
“It sort of… fell on us,” Jasna said.
“Fell on you,” Katarin said.
“Well, if you hadn’t dropped it--”
“And they worry about us going at each other?” Justin asked the youngest girl.
Petra snickered. “Why didn’t you show her the little bronze shield in my satchel? I picked it up from the library. It’s the first of the eight tests.”
“Tests?” Brynne asked.
“It’s called the ‘Corridor of Knowledge’ for a reason,” Petra said. “I marked the pieces of parchment that had the description. Didn’t you read it?”
Brynne and Katarin looked at each other, and then to Jasna. She blushed. “There were… too many big words!”
“So.. if this hallway continues, and there are eight tests,” Justin said, “that leaves three we’ve yet to face?”
“His knowledge of numerics is better than his Traladaran history,” Brynne said.
“How did you know we would need bronze to pass the first test?” Katarin asked.
“It was written in the pages I gave to Jasna.”
“So you know what the final three tests will be,” Justin said. “Why are we sitting here?”
“Because… I don’t know what the last three will be. The pages we found only listed the first four. The fifth was there, but I couldn’t read it, since it was all faded from soaking in beer.”
Brynne crossed her arms. “I’m not apologizing. That move got you away from those cut-throats.”
Katarin cleared her throat. “What are we looking for, if not the answers to the final tests?”
“There are two rooms after the Corridor of Knowledge,” Petra said, pointing to the two large boxes at the bottom of the maps. “Look how where we are lines up with the Guardian Chamber.”
“They’re next to each other. So…?”
“So, if I were a priest, I’d want to take the shortest route possible from chapel to shrine.”
“As if a ratling could take the vows,” Justin muttered.
“Only in the Church of Karameikos,” Petra said.
“I will thump both of you,” Brynne warned.
“So…” Petra repeated, “I think they hid a door between this room and this one.” She tapped the line between the two chambers on the map.
“If the pattern of the tests continues, it looks as if we would skip two of them,” Katarin said, regarding the maps.
Jasna was already on her feet, running her fingers over the mortar between the stones of the wall. “What?” she asked. “I’m not taking any test I don’t have to!” 

It took nearly half an hour of poking, prodding, and pushing at the stones before Petra found the loose block just above her eye level. It wiggled, and then grated back into the surface of the wall, a section of which shuddered and gave a sharp ‘crack!’ Brynne nearly landed on the floor as the section of wall she was leaning on fell away, the doorway pivoting around a central balance.
She stumbled into the chamber, bumping against one of the statues standing close to that wall. Justin came through with his lantern, followed by the rest of the girls, the light revealing a chamber as wide as the other was long, the walls behind and before them lined with three statues apiece.
All six were carved of ivory, rather than the grayish-black granite of the rest of the temple, identical in their depiction of a girl a little taller than Katarin with flowing hair held back with a circlet. Lantern light glinted off silvery workings of metal around the wrists and lower arms of the statues along the wall with the secret door in it, while those opposite sported identical traceries of gold. Those with the golden bands clutched long-bladed swords, the tips resting between carved bare feet.
“Silva and Aurora?” Katarin asked.
Jasna squinted up at the statue along the far wall, rubbing at her head. “Does anyone else hear that?”
“Hear what? I don’t hear anything,” Justin said.
Katarin cocked her head, her brow furrowing as she concentrated. She stepped closer to one of the silver-adorned statues. “I can’t quite…” she murmured. She reached out, placing her hand on the statue’s shoulder, and her eyes widened even as she flinched away.
“It’s warm!” she gasped. 
“But did you hear it?” Jasna pressed. “The words are all a jumble in my head.”
“Who cares about the statues?” Justin asked. “Look, there’s the final test.” He started towards the dressed stone archway along the room’s righthand wall.
“Wait!” Brynne called. She, too, had her hand on one of the statues, her dragonstone pendant clutched in her other hand. “It’s... Old Traladaran.” She paused, listening again. “Justin, don’t--”
Too late, the carving above the archway animated, but this time, the expression was neither serene, nor placid. The brows came together, the eyes below them gleaming with a dim, reddish light.
“He who has not passed the Tests of Faith shall go no further!”
Jasna gave a sharp cry, clutching her head. The dragonstone pendant at her neck shone a brilliant orange, the golden veins blazing at full brightness through the red gem. She staggered back, as the gold-adorned statues each gave a shiver, stone flaking from the swords as they swung up to the statues’ shoulders, eyes aglow with a dull greenish light.

All of the girls’ pendants had taken to light, and they all stumbled back and away from the statues, as all six flowed to life. The eyes had opened on the statues, revealing brilliant green gemstones as the eyes of the gold-adorned statues, while those of the silver shone with gold-flecked blue deeper than sapphires.
But the statues were not interested in any of the girls -- they strode past them with eerily silent strides, fanning out in a semicircle to block the doorway to the shrine. Their shining eyes all rested on the young Karameikan, who stared back at the statues with wide eyes.
“What-- what sort of sorcery brings stone to life?” he sputtered.
“The same kind that makes it speak?” Katarin asked.
“Well-- speaking is one thing,” Justin managed. “But this? How are we supposed to get past them?”
“I don’t think we are,” Brynne said.
Justin took a step forward, and the emerald-eyed statues shifted their stance, the blades swinging into a high guard, tips leveled at the young man’s chest.
“He who has not passed the Tests of Faith shall go no further!” the carving above the doorway said, again.
“All right, we get it already!” Jasna groaned. She blinked, trying to clear her vision. It felt as if a white-hot lance had been lodged in her head. The quiet burr and hum of conversation kept flickering at the edge of her hearing.
“You are nearly as pale as those statues!” Katarin said, going to the smaller girl’s side. Her hands were firm on the girl’s shoulders. “No, do not straighten up. Sit.”
Jasna blinked at the other girl. The voices rose and fell, rose and fell. She glanced down, at the blurry redness at the other girl’s throat. Her pendant had slipped from beneath the neckline of her dress, and swung back and forth.
“That’s it!” Jasna gasped.

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