Lukas cleaned his spectacles in frustration and sighed. “I’m not happy about it, but I can’t see another way.”
Thorne bit her lip and stared up at the crumbling series of holes in the roof of the stone passageway. “I can make it though. With your help, you know I can.”
“It’s not a matter of whether you can or not. It’s whether I should ask you to. Your safety takes priority.”
“I’m not just some new recruit, Reverend,” she said, with a bit more hurt coming through than she intended. She was a grown woman, not that he ever seemed to notice. “I am a soldier of the Church, a paladin in the making.”
“In the making,” he said, not meeting her eyes. “And it’ my duty to see you make it.”
He placed his glasses back on his nose and squinted at the stack of maps and documents spread out on the floor. The outskirts of the ruin were relatively well mapped by local youths and fledgling adventurers. Before the abominations had started attacking it had been relatively rare to find much of danger there. A couple years back there had been an issue with some clickers and the Church had dispatched a burn team. A few years before that, local kids had reported walking statues, but nothing had ever been come of it. The most recent one before that was from back when he had been a novice himself: a wytchblood had escaped containment and the Hounds eventually tracked it here before putting it down.
Now everything seemed more dangerous.
They had dispatched three more abominations in the last hour. The last two had come at them in a pincher attack. For a moment, Lukas had been worried, but Thorne had cut them down handily. She was clearly more tired than she was letting on, but her swordplay remained sharp as ever. Still, was he pushing her too hard? It was always hard to tell. He never understood why she always seemed so eager to impress him.
But he also had to admit that he was running out of other ideas. The door blocking their way was something new, not on any of the old maps. The arching passageway was marked as the gatehouse of the old temple proper, but even notes from decades back mentioned that the gate was broken. And this looked distinctly recently made and distressingly functional. Moreover, the Rite of Opening, taught to all vagante priests of the Church, did nothing to budge it. There had to be something more than a mere mechanical force at work here.
He had been the first to point out he murder holes in the roof of the archway. It seemed like there was an ancient guardroom up above. Thorne had instantly latched onto the idea that if he just boosted her up, she’d be able to get in and open the door from the other side. The only alternative was backtracking. At this point that likely meant trying to set up a secure base camp and turning this into a prolonged expedition or heading back to town and requesting more resources from the Church. Both of those choices ran the risk of the Bishop deciding that the job was too big for them to handle. In an ideal world, he would take the blame for that and it wouldn’t hurt his pupil’s candidacy, but it was always hard to tell with Church bureaucracy.
“Okay. Go ahead. But just a quick look around. If you don’t see an obvious way to open the door, come right back.”
She flashed him a smile and gave an excited salute. “Yes, Reverend!”
Thorne looked up at the hole and rolled her neck a bit, loosening up. She handed Lukas her sword and unbuckled the straps on her heavy combat vest. Setting it aside, she pulled uncomfortably at the cloth of her tunic where sweat made it cling to her body and tried to fan some air to her skin. Then she knelt and pulled her knife from the vest, strapping it securely inside one soft leather boot before finally indicating that she was ready.
He cupped his hands and gave her a look that didn’t try to hide his concern. “Remember, right back if it’s a dead end”
She nodded and stepped up into his palm, steadying herself on his shoulder. Then she straightened up and he boosted her to where she could get a grip on the sides of the shaft. Bracing her arms against the sides she pulled her legs up and crawled into the darkness above.
* * *
Lukas had been right; a deserted guard room was built into the top of the archway. As she pulled herself up out of the hole, she coughed at the thick clouds of dust that she kicked up. It had been decades at the least since anyone had been here. Apparently, whoever had taken up residence in the ruin was content with magic doors and didn’t care for the more mundane aspects of security. Their mistake.
Thorne reached into a small pouch hanging from her belt and gave it a counterclockwise rub as she whispered a prayer. The stone glowed in a dim light, and she held it out in front of her to pick her way through the abandoned room. The light played off rusted cauldrons, weapon racks, and long-dead screens as she made her way through the room to an unlocked door on the other side. She opened the door as quietly as she could and looked down a long, dark stair.
The stair led to what was marked on their maps as an entry hall. In its time it had probably been a beautiful place. A beautiful, albeit heretical, place, she corrected herself as she stared at the faded frescos detailing scenes of the ancient art and transgressions of her forebears. There was something like a reception desk, a small font for ablutions, and at the far end a hallway flanked by two guardian statues. For a moment she was tempted to explore further, even if just to show Lukas that she could handle herself. But she remembered his concern and her promise, and she turned back to the black metal door that had blocked their way.
The inside of the door had no conventional lock or latch. Instead, there was a large mass of wax holding it closed, adorned with the intricate circuitry of a curse. Even looking at it made Thorne’s head buzz and she sucked air through her teeth as she tried to keep her vision in focus. She looked as closely as she possibly could, trying to hold the design in her mind without letting it carve itself into her brain.
Curse cracking is not an easy art, even if it is relatively simple. All you must do is short the circuit. The problem is that curse energy grows to consume anything it meets. If you fail to break the circuit, you just become part of it. Fortunately, Thorne had always had a knack for it.
She slipped off her light leather gloves and tucked them into her belt. Then she untied the cord that she used to hold her hair back, letting it fall around her face. Taking the cord, she tied a multi-layer knot, holding the image of the circuit in her mind as best she could. It was more a matter of feeling and instinct, rather than exact knowledge that told her what would fit.
She held the ends of the cord and let the knot dangle down from her hand. Taking in half a breath, she reached out and touched the seal.
Hot. Pain. Slithering. Arcing. Her eyes shot shut. Her mouth hung open. Stinging. Not stopping. Focus. Her nerves burned. She heaved and dropped the cord on the ground. The fabric twisted and writhed like a worm, but the knotwork held. The seal on the door crumbled and she kicked the knotted cord to a dark corner of the room where it glowed and sputtered.
Thorne took a long moment to steady herself and then heaved the door open outward.
A young woman with pointed ears and dark eyes looked up from where she crouched over Lukas’ body.
“Huh. Quicker than I expected.” The wytchblood said.