Iron heels thundered on the craggy stones, echoing in the hallway in the depths of the Spirit temple. Distant, desperate voices tore apart the calm breeze of morning wind, brushing against my knees. Screams, that worked their way through your ears into your body, sending shivers and chills, that would stay there, roaming around long after the sound would fade. Scream did fade, moving aside for cold, deep silence to fill the burrowed hall again. I squinted my eyes towards the heavy fog, waiting for a blur, shadow in the mist.
There was no time for a blur, as the chieftain burst out of the mist, painting with a face, twisted in agony, wide eyes with popped branches of blood vessels imprinted a picture in my mind.
“Run you fool” he yelled, not slowing down for one bit. “Stop standing around and run damned rookie, I need you to open that gate” veins on the side of chieftains neck throbbed.
Hunters appeared out of the mist shortly after.
All but one.
Guess the scream, as well as the shock on my friend's faces, could be a tribute to him. I turned on my heels and joined their run. Streams of sweat running through their skin and clothes, glimmering in the gray light. I easily picked up their pace.
I glanced back right at the time tribal warriors bolted out of the blue fog, squinting their eyebrows in all directions. When they saw me, an animalistic yell echoed in the air as their bare feet started moving on the sharp, scrappy ground.
Dark, barefooted, and loud demons, getting closer, and closer. Knott formed in my stomach, turning and swaying around, tightening with each heartbeat.
Their corrosive breath breezed the back of my neck. At least that is what my mind was telling me, motivating me to move my feet faster.
Their knives burned in the torchlights, grinning at me. I swiftly jumped over a boulder as one of the hunters glanced back, stumbled over the base of the boulder, and tripped, falling down.
I didn`t flinch, I didn`t stop. Another scream took place deep beneath my skin, trembling.
Their knives now smiled in crimson red, that dripped on the ground with every jump they made. I hoped my chieftain did indeed study this damned maze the night before. Temple, full of paths leading nowhere.
Dead ends, made for dead people.
Solemn, fast-paced heartbeats accompanied my descend on soaked, steep stairs. I didn`t even know the temple went deeper than that. Dropping down a level more, cold mist vanished, replaced by dreadful, slow heat. Another hunter tripped, but this one turned towards them, pulled out his sword, and faced his demons, holding them.
Holding them for enough time to get me three or four steps ahead of them. I imagined what his final thoughts were, bleeding underground on dark, unforgiving stone, ran over by dozen tribals, leaving him in dying grasp. I ran for my life, now newly the last in line, with demons trying to bite my heels. Hall opened up in some kind of a throne room, full of red and dark flags, leading up to the bridge. I remembered the chieftain talking about the legend of it. Ragged, scrappy wooden boards, full of reeds, that could pierce through the skin like butter.
An ancient wooden bridge, covered in the dust among all the fine, glided stone, covered in runes and tribal writing. It spread across an abyss, longer than any hall we`ve been on. The bridge pleaded, yelled for help, loudly creaking under the weight of hunters, treading on it. Their chins raised high, no one dared to take even a glance at what laid below their feet.
The shit-eating grin crept up on my face before the idea did.
I paused, waiting for the last hunter to carefully step down the wooden bridge. Closing my eyes for a second, I thought of her lips, her smile, and lastly, her almond eyes. The knife swung through the air, a fingernail away from slipping between my shoulder blades as I drifted forward, sprinting on the bridge.
I ran away like I did from home.
I nodded to the chieftain as he leaned back for the first swing. Tribal warriors followed me, but even these relentless protectors of the temple paused in awe as the first swing of the knife came down on the barbed vine, connecting the bridge to the other side. One by one, vines ripped apart. I closed my eyes, my feet following the rhythm of the boards, landing in the middle every time.
Swing, snap, and swing. The last vine bent under the will of the sword. It was time to jump.
I opened my eyes and exploded from my knees up, jumping forward and up reaching for the hand in front of me. I jumped too high, landing on a fellow hunter, twisting his hand with the pressure of my weight, raining down on him. We collapsed on the ground, rolling in the dust on the edge of the cliff. The warriors went down with the bridge in dead silence.
Not a sound, not a subtle scream. Nothing to join my collection of voices to torment me.
Even after their bodies got impaled by rusty, tangled spikes, their gloomy eyes pierced us with a shivering gaze. My stomach turned, the knot in it twisted, despite no food being in it to burst out, the waves of fear from my stomach swirled up my throat, throbbing, wanting to get out. I leaned over the edge and puked down the cliff. Chieftain patted me on the shoulder, waited for me to finish then pulled me on my feet with a grin up to his ears.
“You truly are worth your pay rookie. That old stick wasn`t lying” he mocked, laughter shaking his big, but firm stomach. I managed to squeeze out a half-lifted smile.
“That old stick” I emphasized, moving past him, “is one smart man. Watch this”
I walked past him on the platform, a small shadow, gazing up to the colossal gate of the Temple.
I pressed my palms into the dented lines of the gate, brushing my fingers over symbols and runes I`ve heard about all my life. I scrapped my nails into the carvings, adding some of my own, genty caressing the soft drawings of grassy hills and slopes, roads and doors, all leading to the lustered, hollow eye in the middle.
The first nail broke, barely holding onto my finger, still firmly pressed, dragging and sliding across the carvings. The pain was a sound of the distant wind, warm, murky blood pouring from it a soothing shower. I leaned on my hand with my entire body, pressing my fingers deeper. Scorching heat spread through my hand when the meat underneath the broken nail pressed into the wall, without a break, without hesitation.
The drawing I outlined with scratches, colored in reeking blood.
The dust, resting peacefully on top of the door before our ancestors were even born, fell down, creating a shower curtain of fragments. The ancient gate opened with a loud creek, that crept into your ears, leaving pinching pain once the sound retreated. Blood dried into it, stones moved, revealing a handle. I grabbed it and pulled it.
Guess the architect didn`t bother to make them easy to open for one person only. I waved to other hunters.
Shoulder by shoulder, feet leaned against the uneven craggy ground, arms stretched and bent, pulling the eight of the gate to us. Thin crimson and orange light beamed out of the opening, and hearts were racing. Pause, pull, pause pull. We got in the rhythm, pulling the door like children run, with fervor and without thought.
“Hold. Hold it, that`s enough. Let me go in to check,” commanded Chieftain, breaking us out of eager chains. He walked up to the opening, tilted his body sideways, and started squeezing in. I opened my mouth, but my dry throat forced me to laugh, not saying a word. Chief`s shadow on the ground swayed left and right, then vanished into thin air.
“Chief?” someone yelled.
“Should we follow him?” another hunter prompted, squinting his eyebrows. I paused, searching for cues around the platform, but mostly, in my mind. Old stick, my mentor, never mentioned it.
“Look for any writing on the walls, I need to read it beforehand.”
The youngest of the hunters tilted his head towards me, creaking his forehead. “Anything wrong?”
“Don`t worry about it. Just need to look for cues and all,” I lied. I remembered the old one, saying something. Something the passage beyond that gate only made for one person.
Why? I should have listened to him back then.
Guess there is no other way. I nodded to others, heading towards the opening. I closed my eyes, my hand shredded as it reached into the mist, slowly treading through. Mist licked my bare skin on my hand, burning the veins in it, colder than I ever imagined.
Chieftain`s face burst out of the mist, his sunken, distant eyes gazed wide open into my soul. He grabbed my shoulder, hugging it in his hefty hand tightly like he tried to squeeze the water out of wet clothing. My bones loudly creaked.
“Don`t come in. It doesn`t want more than one visitor” he yelled, his face shivering in the mist, he spat on my face and all around it with his daunting cry.
“Are you… sure?” I asked, placing my hand on top of his own. Shivering cold, like one in the mist, spread through his hand in mine, like corrosive worms, piercing and eating away into my skin. “Just let us help, come on chief” I prompted, flicking his hand from my shoulder. I took one step forward.
He showed me back. “I ordered you. The order is, to wait. So wait, rookie, don`t allow yourself to ever doubt my order again. Is that clear?” He hissed, his outburst from before vanished like the autumn wind, every word weighing one me heavy, a cunning chain, robbing me of my usual free wit and sarcasm in answers. I wanted to ask him what he saw. What he felt.
I simply nodded, letting him slip back into the mist.
I nearly collapsed on the floor, my shoulder still shrudded from his impact, cold chills sweeping down my shoulders to my body. I didn`t need to revisit my memory of my mentor telling me signs to know we screwed something up. I should have been the one to go in.
A hand patted me on the back. “He`ll be fine. Don`t worry about it man, we can finally get some sleep waiting.” The youngest hunter stared at me with a good amount of compassion, shining from his eyes. That and the glimmer of something.
Everybody unpacked their pouches and set up the camp in the middle of the platform.
If a few animal skins and cloth, laid in a circle around the small bonfire could bear that name. We passed around the remaining supplies, throwing small logs and worn-out clothes to have our final night in the depths warm.
“So we will have to ransack the things inside one by one then?” asked a voice, laying two bodies left from me.
I laughed and he raised his head up. I could sense his daring gaze, despite the dark covering it.
“What we will find in there, brothers” I started, took a deep breath, then realized I can`t even imagine describing it. “No ransacking is needed, “ is all I could stutter out.
Everybody here loved to ransack.
It`s how our little group survived. My poor speech was awarded a couple loud, exaggerated sights and puffed out the air before the silence covered us in its silk nightly veil.
Thin beams of gray and blue morning light found its way into the depths of the temple from tiny holes in the heights, three or more levels above us.
That is when he burst out of the mist.
His before sunken eyes were now hollow, tears of blood and parts of eye dripping down his face. Scratches started at the nose, dragging all the way up his ears. Ragged bloody spots, red lines stretched all along his body, but I couldn`t take my eyes off of the clawed-out eyes.
Not even when he jumped on me, pressing his fingers into my neck.
The camp exploded, hunters yelled, looking at each other with wide eyes and grimaced faces. With a corner of my eye, I saw the youngest one puking over the cliff. It wasn`t just the pressure of my lungs, crying for breath. It was the cold, cinder chills, spreading through his fingertips. One of the hunters finally decided he saw enough and crashed into the chieftain, both rolling to the edge of the platform. I tried to stand up, raised on one leg, then lost balance again, collapsing behind a boulder.
After days of exploring the traps, set up for us in the temple, I thought I was safe. After I crossed the bridge, with souls of the ones left behind haunting me, I thought I could live with the loss, the haunting. Three at once pushed the limit, but I bore just fine.
Screams and souls, one by one, joined the haunting party.
Chieftain rolled the first hunter down the cliff, then whiffed out his sword. Facing a blind man, hunters hesitantly approached one after the other, trying to convince their eyes and ears that the thing in front of them is not the man who raised and trained most of them since the first time they could lift the sword. That one simple moment cost them their necks, guts, and inner thighs as they sliced up, soft tender skin penetrated by rough steel, tainted by warm blood of brothers.
Chieftain rattled from side to side, slashing and stabbing without pause. Some hunters died while their eyes still held the love and respect for their war father, their teacher, as the life leaked from them. Others cursed him, pleading him to stop as they held up their insights, trying to slip out of their gut.
I managed to get on my feet, last three hunters alive, a barrier between me and the wild hollow-eyed beast in front of us.
I tensed my body and yelled; “hold him off, I need to shut this damned door.” I bolted towards the door.
That`s the first time he aimed for the head, instantly killing the youngest hunter. One of them had a wet stain down his pants, he turned on his heels and ran to the cliff, throwing himself down. My hands touched the gate, the thunders of swords of the last hunter standing between me and death. I leaned against the door and pushed. Swords continued swinging, for the first time my heart happily jumped up at the sound of deadly steel, pounding on one another. That is why it dropped down in my stomach as the next swing sounded hollow, reaping into the flesh. My shivering hands pressed harder into the door. Halfway closed, my legs gave up, slipping on the stone. I rolled on the floor, defenseless, half dead.
I closed my eyes, waiting for a sweet, freezing blade to stick into my body.
The door creaked, starting to close again.
I opened my eyes, looking up to chieftain leaning his hefty shoulder against it, ramming it back up, running into it again, and again. Echoes thundered on the platform and the door took it`s place, its frame surrounded by a firm stone wall.
“Seal it back up” he whispered into my ear. All the hairs on my body bristled up, the whisper slipped into my skull like the cold blade did into my brothers.
I dragged myself to the door.
“I need blood” I whined, painting and squinting my eyes at now completely level-headed looking chieftain. Well, composed chieftain without eyes. He nodded, treaded through the pile of bodies, and sliced his blade in, pulling up a severed hand. He threw it in my lap.
“I know you know how to seal it. Do it” his voice rattled up and down, pleading and commanding all at once.
I swallowed the gulp in my throat, holding back my tears. At least this time my wounded hand didn`t need to bleed more across the gate`s carvings. Brushing the lifeless hand against my craggy canvas, I wobbling it left and right. I hummed in the rhythm, like I was still back at my tribe, painting walls with charcoal. Chieftain watched without a flinch, swaying in my rhythm, maybe even humming himself.
The door`s final creek sang it`s farewell song, as it slam shut. Chieftain moved, his feet drifting across the stone as feathers drift in the breezing wind.
He lifted me up and held me in his lap. I knew he was quite a bit taller than me, but now, surrounded by his vast arms, I closed my eyes and saw my father, carrying me through the winter, like I weighted no more than a feather.
“I`m sorry, rookie. I wish I could explain, but there is no time.” He whispered, caressing my hair with one hand. Chills ran down my spine as my whole body embraced the mist and cold storm within it. He turned his back against the wall and started walking.
He paused, the fingers of his feet already over the edge of the cliff, and glanced back at the pile of bodies. Between the blood and dusty stains, a single tear dropped down the massacred, hollow eye. My body moved and quaked, while my mind sank into a calm embrace.
Chieftain gently caressed his fingers over my face, closing my eyes.
He took another step and we fell over the cliff into the embrace of dozens of spikes, rupturing and piercing through our bodies, making sure we could never open the temple`s gate again.