Chapter One

In A Long-Forgotten Room…

 

Only one bonded by blood to the Sun King shall have the Crown;
For all others, the Crypt Guardians shall see to their demise;
To you who pass the test and with the Sun King are bound,
Hasten then with thy prize, lest the tomb become thine own everlasting home

-a portion of the Legend of the Crown, translated by Elwr of Sagehein
From the Book of Legends, Volume III

 

* * *

 

IN A LONG-FORGOTTEN ROOM IN THE RUINS OF THE TOMB OF THE SUN KING

“That must be it,” whispers Jake Redstone, peeking over the remains of the broken wall. Across the vast ruined chamber, the two ornate doors stand silent and sealed. The swordarm slides back down to the stone floor out of sight, and then turns to the young woman at his side, who is unconsciously fidgeting with her ponytail. She wears the simple white robes common to a cleric of the Allway. Jake grins wide. “We’re so close. Why aren’t you more excited?”

The sounds of another approaching goblin patrol echo from one of the chamber’s side corridors somewhere ahead. They both sink lower onto the stone floor.

Elaine purses her lips before answering in a low whisper. “More goblins. And once we’re into the Hall of Ancestors, we still have to get past the Crypt Guardians. Or have you forgotten? There’s a reason the Crown of the Sun King has been down here all this time undisturbed.”

“Because no one as awesome as us has tried to recover it?”

“Actually, Jake,” interjects the mage, Mathos Arthollos, “the list of souls who have met their end in pursuit of the crown reads like a veritable who’s who of adventurers from all across the Western Continent.” Mathos is crouched in a dusty shadowed corner, the meager light making his red robes, with their voluminous pockets and hidden folds full of magical ingredients, appear dark grey. He happily launches into the list of names, extending a finger for each: “Parkos Wrenblade. The Quarren Twins. Big Red Olaf and his whole crew. Also, the Nickelblade Brothers.”

“Really” asks Jake. “The Nickelblades?”

The mage nods eagerly. “All three.” Fascinated with his own knowledge, Mathos grows ever more excited. “Oh, oh,” he says, pointing at Jake to drive home this next name: “The entire Hammer and Shield Guild, they disappeared in this area about a decade ago. Never seen again. Pretty wild, huh?”

Jake, who has been listening with a fading smile, now forces a laugh and runs a hand through his curly brown hair. “That many, huh? Thank you for that, Mathos.” He turns to Elaine, finds the young cleric watching him, her lips twisted into a smirk. Scoffing, Jake says, “Hammer and Shield Guild. That’s a terrible name.” Ignoring her narrowed eyes, he adds, “I still think it’s because no one as awesome as us has tried before.”

Elaine opens her mouth to respond, but then snaps it closed. The approaching goblins have now entered the distant end of the room and are barking at one another in the guttural speech of their kind.

The trio of adventurers crouch lower among the shadows and cover of the ruined chamber, their backs against the broken stone wall. Jake, shoulder to shoulder with Elaine, turns his head, risks a quiet question: “Think they know we’re here?”

“They’re splitting up to search the room,” she reports, head cocked, listening. “They’ve found their dead guards on the level above. And one of them thought he heard voices from this room a moment ago. Whispers.”

“Then why are you still whispering,” he whispers back.

Elaine purses her lips.

Jake blinks. “Wait. You speak goblin? I know you’re new to the group, but how am I just finding out–”

The young cleric puts a finger to her lips and gives Jake a fierce glare.

“Oh, you know who else speaks goblin,” says an excited Mathos, leaning close.

They both shush him.

Too loud.

A goblin voice calls out nearby. Others answer. Footsteps approach.

The trio of Jake, Elaine, and Mathos share a look.

Jake quietly slides his sword free of its scabbard. Mathos takes a breath and closes his eyes, preparing his magic. Elaine, holding the swordarm’s gaze, reaches up and takes hold of the medallion hanging from her neck. The holy symbol of the Allway. The cleric sets her jaw determinedly, fingers caressing the divine medallion. She nods to Jake, who returns the gesture. Let’s do this, he mouths.

Jake stands, the cleric and the mage at his shoulder.

The goblins are short and humanoid, with leathery yellow skin and broken-toothed ugly faces. They advance cautiously, most wielding rusty scavenged weapons and wearing ragged clothing and mismatched bits of armor. When they see the three humans emerge from the shadows, they point and jabber excitedly.

Just then, the room is split by a wild warcry. A grin spreads over Jake’s face.

A pale giant of a man rushes into the room from a side corridor, red hair flowing behind him, roaring as he raises his deadly mace to strike. Around the great chamber, perhaps two dozen goblin heads turn to face the warrior. Two of the creatures nearest the fearsome man take a step forward, and then are lifted off the ground by the bone-crunching force of the giant’s swinging mace. The struck goblins sail through the air and crash to the stone floor unmoving. The red-haired warrior roars another mighty warcry.

More goblins drop as a second figure materializes. Like the spectre of Death itself, the black-clad shadow slips through the room, darting from one goblin to the next. A trail of slashed throats and fallen goblin corpses are left in the dark figure’s silent wake.

Jake gleefully lets loose a battlecry, rushes to engage the nearest goblin. The creature wheels around, barely raising its jagged blade in time to fend off the swordarm’s attack. His second strike removes the goblin’s head.

Mathos, his hands extended towards a pair of fleeing goblins, says a few words of magic. The running goblins stop suddenly, their legs frozen to the ground by unseen bindings. They share a frightened look, squealing in their language as the red-haired warrior clears a bloody path towards them.

A bright light shines forth from the medallion of the Allway around Elaine’s neck. A trio of goblins cry out, turning away too late to save their eyes from the brilliant beam. The blinded creatures stagger back, dropped weapons clanging onto the stone floor, stumbling and cursing.

Moments later, the last sounds of battle fade away as the final remaining goblin is felled by the red-haired warrior. The pale giant looks to his companions, a wild smile on his face as he flicks the wet blood from his deadly mace.

“Ham,” says Jake, grinning at the man and sheathing his sword. Hamfrd, the red-haired Northerner, comes forward and puts a giant hand on Jake’s shoulder. The swordarm’s pleased expression spreads to include the deadly shadow just behind the big man. “Scar. Thanks for the assist.”

“Of course,” says the woman, Scarlet Song. She steps forward, expression deadly serious, her face framed by black hair. “What took you so long?”

“More of the same upstairs,” says Jake, indicating the goblin corpses.

Scarlet nods once. “Yeah, us too.”

“Looks like we got all of them,” says Hamfrd, glancing around at the goblin corpses littering the floor. He spreads his arms wide. “Friends,” says the big man, with a booming laugh, “the Crown of the Sun King awaits.”

“Indeed it does,” Jake agrees. He reaches down and picks something up off the stone floor by his feet. A severed goblin head. “Check it out.”

A few steps away, Elaine is kneeling with her head bowed and her eyes closed, clutching her medallion.

Jake comes and stands beside her.

“Lose something?”

“I’m saying a pray for their souls,” she replies, not looking up. “They’re sentient creatures, you know. Even if they are twisted and corrupted by evil. They still deserve to be at peace.”

“That is very noble of you,” the swordarm tells her, and a moment later she opens her eyes and glances up. Jake, holding the severed head, manipulates the goblin’s jaw to make it appear as if it’s speaking. In a croaking voice, he says, “Wanna make out?”

“You are a child,” Elaine says, getting to her feet. “Seriously.” She shakes her head, brushes off the back of her robe. “A child.”

“I’m not hearing a no.”

Ignoring him, Elaine joins the others.

* * *

The heavy ornate doors groan in protest as they swing open for the first time in who knows how long. A gust of stale air hits the group as they stand at the threshold of the darkness. The goblins, superstitious by nature, clearly made no attempt to explore deeper into the tomb. The treasures within, including the Crown of the Sun King, no doubt remain untouched.

Mathos creates a magical orb of light, and the glowing sphere floats into the room and brightens the pitch black chamber into shades of grey shadow. The companions walk forward, following after the meager glow.

A dozen steps into the gloom, the room suddenly bursts into dazzling light. Torches spaced evenly along the walls on either side ignite, burning with dancing blue flames.

“That’s much better, Mathos,” says Jake. “Thank you.”

“I didn’t do that,” the mage replies, eyes wide.

Not letting his face drop, the swordarm says, “Oh. Well, that’s a neat trick.”

Knives appear in Scarlet’s hands. Jake slides his sword free of its scabbard, wary. Hamfrd rests his heavy mace casually on one shoulder.

The revealed room is more of a corridor than a chamber, much longer than it is wide. The floor, walls, and arched ceiling are all ancient stone. At the far end of the corridor is another set of ornate double doors, identical to those they’ve just passed through.

With the ignition of the blue flames, the temperature of the air has dropped suddenly. Their exhaled breath hangs heavy in the frosty air.

“This is perfectly natural and not anything to worry about,” says Jake, rubbing the exposed skin on his arms, shifting his sword from one hand to the other. “Totally not ominous at all.”

They continue forward slowly. Jake leads the group, with the warrior, Hamfrd, just behind at his shoulder. The cleric and the mage come after the tall Northerner. Scarlet has slipped to the rear of the group, her alert eyes scanning for threats.

The next set of doors open with the same sounds of protest from lack of use as the first set. Jake and Hamfrd each take a side, pushing their respective groaning doors all the way into the room, allowing the others to come through.

The Hall of Ancestors stands revealed before them.

Wider than the previous corridor and stretching far overhead into shadow, it is otherwise similar in its stone design. The Hall stretches ahead into deepening darkness; whatever lies at the far end of the chamber is lost in the gloom. Massive statues loom on either side — enormous stone figures seated upon thrones so tall that the seats are above eye level, even for the big Northerner, Hamfrd. Clad in full plate armor from their elaborate helms that are barely visible in the distant shadows overhead down to the huge armored boots that rest on the stone floor, the silent sentinels tower above the five companions. Beside each throne stands a towering sword, point down onto the stone, in the frozen grip of the seated stone men.

The group makes their way forward, leaving the blue flames and their dancing light from the previous room behind. The glowing orb created by Mathos floats above their heads, struggling to penetrate the darkness as they move deeper into the Hall of Ancestors. The air remains icy cold.

They pass between a dozen of the enormous throne statues.

Eventually, the far wall of the chamber appears from out of the shadows. Three steps lead up to a raised dais where a normal-sized throne rests. It seems positively tiny compared to those lining the Hall. This throne is immensely beautiful — intricately carved, finely detailed, cast from precious metals and adorned with gemstones that glitter in the light of Mathos’s magical orb. The dust that has settled over everything else in the Hall seems not to touch this throne. Seated on the royal chair is a skeletal corpse, dressed in elaborate fine robes. It’s bony hands are palm up on the armrests of the throne, a blood-red gem in each. A longsword in an ornamental scabbard lies across the skeleton’s lap. And atop the head rests a shining crown of gold, fixed with an enormous white gemstone right in the center.

“The Sun King,” breathes Hamfrd. “What a beautiful bastard.”

“Awesome,” says Jake. “Let’s get that crown and get out of here.”

“What about the Crypt Guardians, Jake?” Elaine glances nervously around, fidgeting with her ponytail. “I don’t know. I don’t like this.”

“Perhaps they are no more than stories,” says Hamfrd. The big warrior scans the vast shadowy chamber. “I see nothing.”

“Maybe these statues are the Guardians,” says Mathos, eyeing the massive throne sculptures warily.

“Maybe tales of our heroic exploits reached them,” suggests Jake, “and they fled rather than face us.”

Scarlet narrows her eyes. “Yeah, I don’t think it’s that one.”

“Come on, this is what we came for,” Jake says, pointing to the seated skeleton. He climbs the three steps, approaches the shining prize. “The Sun King’s crown.”

“You guys don’t think we’ll have to fight these giant statues,” asks Mathos, still casting a concerned look back over his shoulder, “do you? I’ve read quite a few accounts of stone statues coming to life, acting as magical guardians. They all pretty much say the same thing. You don’t want to fight giant stone warriors. I mean, look at the size of their giant fists. They could crush us like bugs. I don’t want to be crushed like a bug.”

Jake looks back towards the mage. “Don’t worry, Mathos. There’s like a dozen of those big guys, but all the stories about the Sun King’s tomb only mention the two Crypt Guardians.” He looks to the young cleric, Elaine, who is well-versed in the Book of Legends. “Right?”

“He’s right, Mathos,” she says, agreeing reluctantly with Jake. “Those are probably just normal statues.” A nervous laugh. “One hundred percent normal. Probably.”

Mathos still looks troubled. “I had a cousin who was killed by a stone sentinel, you know. During a raid on a rival wizard’s tower. Actually, it was technically just an ordinary statue. A big one, though. It fell on him.”

“That’s terrible,” says Jake. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Oh, it wasn’t much of a loss. He was from the Boxwell side of the family. Not the nicest bunch. Or the brightest.” He laughs at some memory. “In fact, there was this one time–”

“Not now, Mathos.” Jake rubs his hand together. “Here we go.”

He reaches out and lifts the crown off the skull of the Sun King with a sharp intake of breath.

When nothing terrible immediately happens, Jake breathes out a sigh of relief and smiles. He turns and holds the crown up for the others to see. “Check it out, Sun King’s crown. Should I put it on? I’m going to put it on.” He brings the golden accessory towards his head, prepares to set it there atop his curly brown hair.

“Jake! Wait!” his companions call out in unison.

* * *

Jake pauses, the crown inches from his head. Reluctantly, he lowers the golden headpiece, but he’s wearing a joyous grin. “Come on. Obviously I’m not going to put the Sun King’s crown on my head. It could be cursed or something, right? That would just be asking for trouble.” Aside to Mathos, he whispers, “I was totally going to put it on.”

Clicking noises emanate from the stone wall behind the throne.

“What’s that?” asks Elaine.

Jake lowers the crown, puts one hand on the hilt of his sword.

The clicking continues, and then a hissing noise joins the clicking. A scraping sound follows, and a portion of the stone wall sinks inward, leaving a gaping hole filled with darkness.

Something like smoke or steam hisses out, becomes a cloud in the air above the throne. A second cloud separates itself from the first.

The two clouds begin to form into something resembling human shapes, and a moment later it’s evident they are spectral warriors, armed with spectral blades. The features of their faces and their armor are soon etched clearly onto the translucent beings.

“I think we found our Crypt Guardians,” says Jake, drawing his sword.

“You think?” snarls Scarlet. She’s already racing towards the closer of the two Guardians, knives out, slashing. Her blades pass right through, encountering no resistance, and one of her hands touches the spectral being’s mist-like body. She cries out in pain. The knife drops from suddenly lifeless fingers, clatters onto the stone floor. Scarlet twists away, clutching her injured arm to her body.

Hamfrd bellows a warcry and swings a mighty blow with his mace, enough power behind the strike to fell a tree. The mace passes right through the spectral being, same as Scarlet’s blade, and the force of the giant’s swing throws him off balance. He stumbles to one knee, cursing.

“Hey,” shouts Jake, “over here.” He waves the crown in the direction of the spectral Guardians. “You want this? Back off.”

They do not back off. In fact, they see the crown and Jake holding it, and focus their attention fully on him. Both Guardians float forward, spectral swords raised.

Mathos recites a quick spell and lightning arcs from his fingertips to strike one of the spectral beings. The magic crackles and flashes and rebounds off the Guardian right back at Mathos. The mage is knocked backwards off his feet by his own spell.

“They have magic resistance!” he says from the floor, holding a hand to his head. His singed robes are smoking.

Elaine steps forward. A quick prayer and a squeeze of her medallion, and divine light blooms, shining brilliantly. The Guardians hiss and are pushed back by the light.

“There we go,” says Jake, advancing. He holds the crown in one hand, and his sword in the other. “How do you like that, you spectral bastards?”

Just as quickly, the light of Elaine’s medallion is snuffed out. One of the spectral beings turns its head, points at the cleric. The medallion is ripped from her fingers. Still attached to the chain around her neck, the medallion swings around her head and yanks Elaine backwards, tightens around her throat as it drags the young woman and lifts her off the ground. Feet desperately seeking out the stone floor, Elaine is pulled up into the air, coughing and choking. She kicks and squirms, face turning red.

Scarlet swings through one of the Guardians again, cries out in fury. “I can’t do a thing!”

Hamfrd is back on his feet, stepping in front of the spectral figures, swinging his mace. The two Guardians seem unconcerned by the giant man and his mighty weapon passing through their incorporeal bodies.

Scarlet, still holding her injured hand against her body says, “Ham, don’t let them touch you.”

The red-haired warrior steps aside, growling.

The two Guardians continue to advance, ignoring Hamfrd. Their attention once again fully on Jake and the crown.

Scarlet and Mathos are now at Elaine’s side. The cleric hangs in the air, choked by the chain of her medallion. They each take a leg and together lift Elaine up, easing the pressure on her throat. She’s able to slip the chain over her head and off. Scarlet and Mathos lower the cleric, coughing and wheezing, to the stone floor. The medallion drops to the stones nearby.

Jake is taking steps backwards, pursued by the floating spectral Crypt Guardians. He holds the crown up above his head. The eyes of the Guardians follow it.

“Ham!” he calls out to the warrior. “Catch.” He tosses the crown to the big man, who snatches it out of the air.

The spectral Guardians turn from the swordarm and begin to advance on Hamfrd.

“It’s the crown!” shouts Jake. “They’re drawn straight to the crown.” The Guardians are now moving away from him. He calls out to Hamfrd.

The big warrior throws the crown back.

“All we need to do,” says Jake, turning towards the distant entrance to the Hall, “is run.” He starts to dash across the stone floor. “We’re much faster than they are.”

Several steps into his flight, he slides to a stop as one of the Guardians appears in the air in front of him. “Nope,” says Jake, backing up. “They’re much faster.”

“Look out!” shouts Hamfrd.

Jake glances over his shoulder, sees the second Guardian closing quickly. He’s caught between them. He ducks, dodging a spectral sword.

Looking around frantically, he spies Scarlet and Mathos crouched beside Elaine, on the floor nearby. “Scar!” He tosses the crown.

The fierce woman snares the crown with her good hand, then rolls acrobatically to her feet. Spins away from one of the Guardians, which appears suddenly in front of her, and then tosses the golden crown back to Hamfrd.

Jake goes to Elaine’s side. “Are you okay?”

She nods, wincing and rubbing her neck.

“Good,” he says. The cleric takes his offered hand, and together he and Mathos help Elaine to her feet.

“Mathos!” They turn towards Scarlet’s voice.

“Wh–”

The crown comes sailing through the air, hits the mage in the chest, and clatters to the stone floor.

“Hurry! Pick it up!”

Mathos bends down, snatching the crown from the ground just as one of the Guardians appears in front of him. He staggers back, still crouching, right into the second Guardian.

He yelps in shock and pain and lurches forward. He manages to flick the crown to Jake before collapsing to the stone floor. “My butt!” cries the mage. “Oh, Allway! I can’t feel my butt! And it hurts at the same time. How is that even possible?!”

Jake sidearms the crown like a disc into the waiting hands of Hamfrd.

Elaine grabs Jake’s arm. “We can’t do this forever. Think, Jake. How do we defeat these Guardians? What do the stories say?”

“I am thinking.”

“My bottom!” moans Mathos, curled into a ball on the stone floor. He howls in pain. “Now I know how my Great Uncle Mario must’ve felt when he sat on that invisible porcupine.”

“Okay, I can’t think with you yelling, Mathos,” Jake declares. “No one wants to hear about your stupid relative that sat on a . . . wait, that’s it!”

“Jake?” Elaine gives him a questioning look.

“Relatives. Blood bonds. Like the–”

“Like the Legend of the Crown,” she finishes for him, excited. “From the Book of Legends. ‘Only one bonded by blood to the Sun King shall have the Crown.'”

“Exactly.”

“But none of us are–” Her eyes grow wide. “Look out.” She plucks the crown from the air an instant before it strikes Jake in the head.

“Sorry,” calls Hamfrd, several paces away.

The Guardians appear, one to either side of the cleric, coming for the crown. Spectral swords rise to strike. “Scarlet!” cries Elaine, and tosses the crown in the other woman’s direction.

“This sure is fun,” growls Scarlet as she catches the crown. “Not to mention heroic.” She tumbles away from the slicing blade of one of the Guardians. Bends away from the other. “They’re not messing around anymore.”

“I’ve got an idea,” Jake says. “Blood bond.”

Elaine puts a hand on his shoulder. “But none of us are related to the Sun King, Jake.”

“You’re right,” he says, advancing towards the throne and climbing the stairs. “But there are other types of blood bonds.”

He pulls out a small knife.

* * *

IN A FIELD OF TALL GRASS, BENEATH A GOLDEN SUN, MANY YEARS EARLIER

Ten year old Jake and two other boys stand over a dead goat, an arrow protruding from the animal’s chest.

“You killed one of Old Man Gant’s prize-winning goats,” says the blond-haired boy, Nigel.

The chubby boy he’s talking to, Oscar, groans. “I thought it was a deer.”

“It doesn’t look anything like a deer,” young Jake says.

“It’s too late now,” says Nigel. He pulls out his small knife. “We all know it was a mistake, right? But we’ll still be in big trouble. Let’s make a pact, never to tell anyone.”

“A blood pact?” asks Oscar, staring at the blade.

Nigel nods. Looks at both other boys. “Agreed?” Not waiting for an answer, he slides the blade across his left palm, winces. Blood streams from the cut. He does the same to the palm of his right hand, then passes the blade to Oscar.

The chubby boy hesitates only an instant, chin trembling, before slicing both of his hands. He passes the knife to young Jake.

The hilt is sticky with the blood of the other two boys.

Jake puts the blade to his left palm and then pauses. “I mean, it’s just a goat. How much trouble could we get in?”

“Come on, Jake,” says Nigel.

“We’ll be blood brothers,” urges Oscar.

“Blood brothers,” young Jake echoes.

He presses the blade to his skin. A bead of red appears. Young Jake’s stomach starts to swirl.

“Jake?” The boys’ voices, far away. “Jake?”

Everything fades to black as young Jake passes out.

* * *

IN THE HALL OF ANCESTORS, BESIDE THE THRONE OF THE SUN KING, THE PRESENT

“Jake?” The cleric calls his name.

“Old Man Gant found me lying there beside his dead goat,” he says. “I told him the whole truth. My friends got into so much trouble.”

“Huh?” Elaine looks at the swordarm, confused.

“Well, after that they were pretty much ex-friends,” Jake amends. He holds up the blade, grins. “Blood brothers.” Standing before the Sun King, he slices one hand, and then the other. Sheathes the knife. He reaches out, places his bloodied hands atop the Sun King’s bony palms and the two red gemstones there. “And look,” he says, “I don’t faint at the sight of my own blood anymore.”

“Is it working?” asks Elaine.

His hands, gripping the bones of the Sun King and the red gemstones, are enveloped by a warm wetness that spreads between his fingers. Something magical is happening. Or possibly that’s just the blood. His blood. His cut palms throb. Jake risks a glance over his shoulder. “I think it’s working,” he tells the cleric, forcing an optimistic grin onto his face.

Hamfrd, backed against the stone wall by the Guardians, roars and lofts the crown over them to Elaine. She snatches it from the air and is instantly menaced by the two spectral beings.

She catches Jake’s eye. “Are you ready?”

He nods. “I guess we’ll find out.”

The cleric tosses the crown to him.

Jake lets go of the Sun King’s bony hands, turns and catches the crown.

The two Guardians appear before him.

They advance, spectral swords extended.

“Okay, bad idea,” says Jake.

He retreats, stumbles against the front edge of the throne and loses his balance. He falls back, and winds up sitting on the skeletal lap of the Sun King and the ornamental sword. The ancient bones under him shift and crack. The gemstones in the Sun King’s open hands are now glowing from within, a soft red light.

The Guardians advance.

They raise their swords.

Jake tenses for their attack.

Instead, the two spectral warriors salute silently with their weapons. They drop down onto one knee in front of Jake. They bow their heads, then slowly fade from view and are gone.

“Jake!” Elaine stands at the base of the three steps, looking up, hands clasped together. “It worked.”

Jake holds up the crown, grinning wide. “We got it. And I think I might be the Sun King now!”

“This is great,” says Mathos, from the floor. “I’ve never been friends with a royal before. And I can feel my butt again.”

Scarlet, standing nearby, flexes the fingers of her injured hand. “Yeah, my arm is better, too.”

Jake climbs off the Sun King’s lap, straightens the fine robes and the ornamental sword, and stands before the throne facing his companions. “I’m gonna put it on now,” he says, bringing the crown to his head.

“DON’T!” they shout as one.

He grins sheepishly down at the group and lowers the crown.

“Come on, relax,” he says. Gestures with a thumb back to the skeleton seated on the throne. “The Sun King and I are brothers now. Blood brothers.”

“I am so jealous,” says Mathos, climbing unsteadily to his feet.

Just then, a tremor shakes the floor beneath their feet, rattles the bones of the Sun King on the throne. The ground lurches.

Jake is thrown off balance and stumbles to one knee. The crown slips from his fingers, bounces down the stairs and rolls across the stone floor.

“That’s probably bad,” says Scarlet, glancing around the Hall as the shaking continues for another couple of seconds.

“I think it’s probably time we go,” says Elaine. She hurries to collect the dropped crown. “Remember what else the legends say: ‘Hasten then with thy prize, lest–‘”

She bends over to grab the crown and stops.

A well-worn, black and silver boot stands on the crown.

Elaine’s eyes travel up the powerful leg, over the thick, muscled body, to the owner of the boot’s face. “‘–lest the tomb become thine own everlasting home,'” she finishes lamely.

Jake hops down from the dais.

“The Dark Marauder,” he breathes, shocked. “Brune Drago.”

“Drago,” Elaine echoes, eyeing the man’s muscled arms warily.

“Drago,” spits Scarlet.

The Dark Marauder leans down, snatches the crown.

Other figures appear from the gloom of the chamber to stand at Brune’s side.

“Ilsa Ilsanova,” says Jake, eyeing the small, dangerous woman as she steps from the shadows. She wears twin swords strapped across her back, blades that she wields with expert precision. A dark hood and a black velvet mask over her mouth and nose conceal much of her face, but her twinkling eyes suggest a hidden smirk beneath.

“Calophanides, the mage.”

“It’s wizard,” the pale, gangly man beside Ilsa replies. His mouth twists with scorn beneath his large, hooked nose. Mathos has attempted to explain the difference between the two terms to Jake, but his explanation hasn’t stuck.

“If you say so,” says Jake, before his eyes move on the next man. Clad in the robes of a cleric, the man bristles, preparing to be insulted. Instead, Jake pauses. “I always forget–”

“Landen,” the man says, annoyed. “Cleric of Allway.”

Jake shakes his head. “Not ringing any bells.”

“Come on,” the cleric says plaintively. “You know who I am.”

“Well, well.” Clapping her hands, a tall woman steps from the shadows to stand in front of Landen and the other new arrivals. She wears stylish armor that fits her female form snugly, and a sword strapped at her waist. The spiky blond hair on her head is short and messed, and her handsome face is presently marred by the gloating twist of her lips.

“Harriet Swordsteel.” Jake meets the female swordarm’s eyes with a cold stare. Somewhere behind Jake, Scarlet growls.

“If it isn’t Jake Wetsock and friends.” Her eyes flick briefly to Scarlet, ignore the rest.

“The Darkblades.” Jake’s nostrils flare. “And you know my name is Redstone,” he says through clenched teeth, unable to ignore the woman’s slight.

Another tremor shakes the ground under their feet.

“Thank you so much,” continues Harriet, glancing around unconcerned as dislodged rocks fall from above and clatter onto the ground, “for retrieving the Crown of the Sun King. We’ll take it from here.” She snaps her fingers and holds out a hand. Brune Drago brings her the golden crown, places it into her waiting palm. She tucks the artifact into a pouch at her waist. “We snuck in,” she tells Jake and the others, “while you were playing keep away with those ghostly warriors. But you’re free to watch us leave now. With the crown.”

At the slight flick of her head, her companions to start to move back. She follows after, heeled boots clicking on the stone floor, back towards the distant entrance to the Hall.

Hamfrd, at Jake’s left shoulder, cracks his knuckles.

Brune Drago steps forward, pulls something from his pack. It’s a severed goblin head. “Don’t look so blue,” he rumbles, pretending to make the goblin head speak. He holds it higher up for inspection, moves the jaw again. “Miss me, friend-o?” He barks a deep laugh and tosses the severed head down at Jake’s feet, before turning and following after his departing allies.

Jake glances at the head, then over at Elaine. “Pfft. That could be any goblin’s head,” he whispers. “It’s probably not even the same one.” Elaine scrunches her brow, uncertain how to respond.

“Again, I thank you,” Harriet calls, blowing a kiss in the direction of Jake and the others. “And now, since I can’t have you following us and trying to take back our crown.” She glances over at the pale wizard beside her. “Calophanides,” she says. “If you’d be so kind as to cover our withdrawal.”

As the others continue moving backwards, the wizard pauses. Muttering the language of magic and making grand gestures with his arms, he produces between the two groups a shimmering wall of energy, which rises from the floor up to the dark reaches of the shadowed ceiling above, and across from one wall to the other. A glowing, transparent barrier, yet one more solid than the stone on which they stand.

Satisfied with his work, the wizard, Calophanides, makes a crude hand gesture, and then turns and follows after his companions. The group hurries away towards the room’s exit, carrying with them their stolen prize: the Crown of the Sun King.

“Well, that’s just great,” mutters Jake, throwing up his hands. He walks forward to inspect the shimmering energy barrier. “Mathos, is there any way through this?”

The mage joins Jake, studies the magical creation of Calophanides. After a moment, he shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Jake. It’s bound tight. We’ll have to wait for it to dissipate on its own.”

“How long will that take?”

“A few minutes?” Mathos frowns. “An hour? Could be half a day. Calophanides is pretty powerful. Of course, he’s no stronger than I am. I can think of three different ways I could bring down this barrier right now if I had access to my lab. Four, if we had some way to collect about thirty pounds of unicorn dung. And were on a boat.”

Jake gives Mathos a confused shake of his head. “What?”

The mage shrugs.

Turning to the others, Jake bangs a fist into his open hand. “Damn it! I can’t believe we made it all the way down here, got the crown, and Harriet stupid Swordsteel and her Darkblades just stole it from us. I became blood brothers with the Sun King.” He looks down at his blood-stained hands. “That reminds me, my hands really hurt.” He holds the injured palms up for the group to see. “I cut both of my hands. Pretty deep.”

Jake turns his bloodied palms back towards himself. Shudders as a wave of nausea sweeps over him. “Actually, I don’t feel so well.” He staggers. His wounded hands stare back at him. So bloody. So red. So–

“Okay. I’m fain–”

Jake collapses to the stone floor.

* * *

Jake blinks open his eyes to find Elaine’s face close to his, brown eyes wide with concern.

“Are you alright?” she asks.

“Fine,” says the swordarm, sitting up with a groan. “How long was I out?”

“Not long,” Elaine tells him. “Couple minutes.”

“I fainted.” Remembering what happened, Jake brings his hands up warily. They are now wrapped in bandages. He flexes his fingers, feeling some soreness. “Did you heal them?”

“Just a quick fix,” Elaine says, standing. She offers her hand to Jake. “Once we’re out of here I’ll–”

The ground trembles. Broken pieces of stone clatter onto the floor.

“That’s still happening,” says Jake. He reaches out, accepting Elaine’s offered hand, and gets to his feet. Brushes off the back of his pants.

“Quakes are getting stronger,” growls Scarlet. “What are we doing?”

The group is sealed into the far end of the Hall of Ancestors by the magical barrier created by Calophanides before he and Harriet Swordsteel and the other Darkblades left with the stolen crown.

The ground shakes again, much more violent this time, pitching everyone onto the floor.

Larger chunks of rock are falling now, crashing to the stone floor and shattering into pieces. One heavy block bangs off the Sun King’s throne, smashing the skeleton’s right arm, sending bone and rock fragments and one of the red gemstones scattering onto the dais and clattering down the steps.

“We’re going to be crushed if we don’t get out of here,” warns Jake.

“No shit,” says Scarlet, scowling. She stalks up the stone steps and kicks the throne of the Sun King as if it’s to blame for their predicament. “Damn it.” She pounds her open hand with a fist. “When I get my hands on that bitch, Swordsteel . . .”

Jake watches her for a moment, then turns to the others. “Alright, look, we have to think of something before–”

A huge block drops from the shadowed ceiling overhead, smashes onto the ground right beside Jake.

“–before that,” he says, pointing at the broken stone block, split into chunks by the impact. “This whole place is coming down.” He glances up nervously.

A few paces away, Hamfrd strikes a mighty blow against the magical barrier with his mace. The weapon is jarred free from his grip. He curses and stumbles back. The transparent wall shimmers and ripples like the surface of a lake as the energy is disturbed. But it remains impenetrable.

“Don’t bother,” Mathos tells him. “You can’t smash through.”

The earth rocks again. The strongest quake yet. The Hall of Ancestors is tearing itself apart. Struggling for balance, the companions stagger together towards the center of their sealed prison, near the base of the steps. All except Scarlet, who stands above them upon the dais, gripping the throne for balance.

Another huge block crashes to the floor, shatters.

Beyond the magical barrier, one of the massive throne statues topples over, taking with it the giant stone warrior seated therein. It smashes into the statue beside it, heavy stone chunks breaking off and falling to the floor. The main bulk of the statue, still intact, now lays almost flat, propped against its neighbor.

The shaking continues.

A portion of the wall behind the Sun King’s throne collapses inward. The throne is knocked off its base, pushed forward. Scarlet dives to the side as the heavy throne skids across the stone and then pitches over, topples down the stairs. The skeletal remains of the Sun King are propelled out of the seat. Bones and debris scatter everywhere.

Elaine calls out a warning. Hamfrd roars a curse. Jake looks up, helpless.

The Hall of Ancestors is collapsing. A few massive stone blocks drop together from the shadows above, a vanguard of sorts, as the rest of the structure cracks and breaks apart overhead. Then the entire chamber, tons of stone and earth, comes crashing down onto them.

 

 

Chapter Two>>>

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