Another one of the early FantasyBits stories, on the theme “Ancient Temple”, I believe. As usual, only small edits have been made compared to the original, which would have been written in 1998 or so. For instance, back then I had no clue how to use a semicolon, it seems…
Coulat – the Herb Magician who sent them here in the first place – had called it The Library of Delights of Laas Anginas. Even if the paintings on the walls showed that once, perhaps, this ichabod of a ziggurath had brought joy and enlightenment to the people around here, it was clearly not so now.
It was damp and dark in the room, and the air smelled of mold. Mold and long-lost books. Something was trickling down from the roof, but as the light they had came from the small oil lantern that swayed to and fro in Oligoletto’s hand as the old man walked down the passages, it was not bright enough for Two Brooks to determine what it was.
The walls were covered with plants and small trees, and as the rest of the room, their leaves were covered with a thick, oily dust; dust that, swirling through the air when motion made the currents of the room upset, stuck to clothes, hair and faces.
Two Brooks coughed.
That the oily dust stuck in her face and hair didn’t bother Two Brooks much. She had given up caring about how she looked over twenty years ago, when first becoming an adventurer. She was built and dressed like a man, and her heavy chain-mail and winged bronze helmet forced most men to look twice before they realised that she was a woman.
But this place, with its damp and humid atmosphere – almost like the inside of a great dead whale, she thought – brought out the woman inside her.
There were shapes in the ivy that resembled no man, nor anything known to man. The walls, where not completely overgrown with fungi or plants, were covered with bookcases and paintings. The people on the numerous paintings, albeit being in situations generally considered to be joyous and merry, sported distorted faces, and their eyes stared menacingly at the passer-by, as if scorning him for being able to walk.
Through the heavy flagstones, veins of precious metals and stones ran, like a network of roads. These veins crept up along the walls, which were rounded, and lacked corners, and from the roof, the faint glow of the oil lamp was reflected in bare surfaces of metal, giving the corridors a sinister look. It was almost as if eyes were staring at them, metal eyes that had seen more years pass by than any living thing.
Pillars covered with ivy towered over, and encircled the odd pair, and even though Two Brooks had over twenty years of battle experience under her belt, she felt mysteriously scared.
There was magic in the air. Evil magic. Had Oligoletto not been such an chauvinist ogre when it came to females in chain-mail snuggling up to him, she would have hinted to him to protect her more physically. Over the years, Two Brooks had learnt that in most adventurers’ minds, women were good for only one thing, and it was nothing that involved chain-mails and adventures.
‘Where do you think it is,’ she asked, at first hoping that he would not notice the trembling dissonances of her voice, but then remembering that it was Oligoletto she had asked; he wouldn’t notice such a thing, even if pointed out to him. Reception of emotions – and especially those in women – didn’t come natural to most adventurers, and Oligoletto was a prime example of that.
‘I dunno,’ he replied. ‘This place is large as a small city, and this is just where they kept their books. I’d hate to find my way through their granary. It could be anywhere!’ he added, as if to convince himself that they weren’t lost.
‘How will we know when we’ve found that “anywhere”?’ Two Brooks continued. The darkness seems less oppressive when they were talking. ‘I can’t remember Coulat giving us much of an explanation of what it ought to look like.’
‘Maybe to you he didn’t, ‘cos of you being a woman, but between us men, information was exchanged on this subject.’ His tone would have given the outsider all the information he needed about Oligoletto’s view of women, and their place in adventuring.
They turned left, Oligoletto leading the way. Both of them were armed and dangerous. Woe to the bat or snake which dared try to scare this duo.
‘So?’ she asked after a while.
‘So what?’ came the reply.
‘So, as in, what did he tell you, then? How do we know when we’ve found it?’ A low branch beat her helmet off, and as she bowed low to pick it up, she could almost feel his eyes contemplating her behind. Pervert, she thought.
‘Don’t you worry about that,’ he said and grinned. ‘We’ll know it when we see it, and then we can go home again, and we’ll be heroes for ever and ever. They’ll sing songs about us. Oh, Oligoletto, the bravest of them all! Didn’t even think twice, when he felt his call!’
The last part was sung loudly, and in a rickety bass, making something rustle further down the corridor. Leaves fell slowly from the ivy, spiralling downwards like small, da Vincian contraptions.
You sure didn’t, Two Brooks thought. As soon as someone buys you enough beer, you can promise them to do anything for them. I only wish you didn’t have to hang out at pubs frequented by magicians all the time. Can’t you just be a grunt like every other hero? When we get back from here, you’ll see my resignation first thing in the morning, at the top of the pile. I want battles and sieges and sun in my face and blood on my hands. Not sneaking around in creepy old libraries looking for stuff.
There were numerous staircases heading upwards on their right, and downwards on the left. There always were. The library was built like an old pyramid, after all, and even though they had been walking around here for several hours, they still hadn’t got much higher than at most the thirteenth level. There were no clues as to how many levels there were, only the ubiquitous staircases leading upwards, ever upwards.
They could have just walked up the staircases and got straight to the top, as that was the most likely place to find it, but Oligoletto wanted to make sure that there was nothing down here to meet them when they came back down. ‘Clear every level first, before you move on to the next one,’ he had said. ‘That way, they can’t get around you. There’s nothing behind you, and you can easily advance to the next level, without fearing ambushes. That’s why I’m the boss, and you’re only an employee.’
It was too quiet. Apart from Oligoletto’s occasional comment on the people in the paintings, the whole library seemed devoid of sound. Like a tomb, Two Brooks thought. No, that’s not it. This is nothing like a tomb. It’s more like… like just plain emptiness…
No one knew what had befell the people who had built all the various buildings in this area. They had just disappeared long before anyone had ever met them. As the original inhabitants, the first Wave of conquistadors had simply disappeared without a trace after a while, leaving the giant pyramids alone, and mostly unexplored. The first conquistadors had found nothing but empty halls, and the second Wave had only found the armour and weapons of the first Wave.
No one came here these days. No one except Two Brooks and Oligoletto, and they wouldn’t be here either, except that Oligoletto had been drunk enough to accept the Herb Magician’s offer.
‘You’ll be heroes,’ Coulat had told them, over and over again. ‘Heroes like no other heroes before.’
He had hit Oligoletto’s soft spot.
Oligoletto had always read books and listened to tales about the heroes of the first two Waves, and he wished that he had lived then and there, to meet all these heroic people. That was more or less the only personal thing he had ever told Two Brooks.
As partners go, they were not very close. Their relationship was more based on respect for the other one’s abilities. There was also a constant feeling both of them shared, that the other one would be so much better off alone – something neither of them thought the other one deserved. They didn’t like each other very much as it was, and if they split up and later learned that their former partner were doing so much better alone, well… They just couldn’t live with that idea.
They had reached the twenty-second level, and judging by the number of staircases winding upwards, they were near the top. There were only two at each side now, but they still looked as menacing as they had at the bottom, when there had been several hundred of them, nursing phalanxes of pillars to support the weight of the floor above.
It must have taken them ages to build this, Two Brooks thought. Ages and a half.
Oligoletto put his foot on the lowest stair to the next floor. There was a deep thud coming from below. This thud was followed by several others, racing upwards faster and faster.
‘What the heck is that sound?’ Oligoletto asked, turning to face Two Brooks.
‘I… I don’t know… unless… Oh my!’ she said.
‘Don’t ask, just run!’ she screamed to him, shoving him upwards.
They ran up the stairs, the thudding approaching faster than Two Brooks was comfortable with.
‘Just keep running,’ she told Oligoletto, ‘and I’ll explain when we come to the top!’
The staircase seemed like it would never end, and the faces on the paintings looked ever so evil now, dancing and drinking, but at the same time showing unalloyed hatred towards the adventurers.
Presently, they reached the top, and Two Brooks forced herself and her companion away from the staircase.
Below them, like an ascending spiral, a number of heavy stone slabs descended over staircases all over the building, closing off passage ways, tearing priceless paintings from other ages from the walls, and crushing pillars. Obviously, the builders hadn’t wanted anyone who ever set foot here to ever get out again.
The last slab fell in place over the staircase they had just left, and all was quiet again.
‘We’re trapped!’ Oligoletto cried, and pounded the slab. ‘We’re bloody trapped!’
‘I know. But I thought it was better to be trapped up here than down there. At least, now we can search for it without having to hack our way through endless stone. We can always find a way back later on.’
Oligoletto silently agreed, and they set out searching for it.
There was only one room on this floor, but it was a maze.
‘Just follow the left wall, and we’ll get out,’ Two Brooks said. ‘That’s what they always do in books.’
‘But we don’t want to get out, we want to get in,’ Oligoletto retorted. ‘Thus, we follow the right wall.’
And so they did, slowly following an elaborate pattern inwards. They had so far only met bats and snakes in the library, and they didn’t really anticipate anything worse, either. Upon reaching the centre, however, they both sensed that something was not entirely right.
There was a podium, with a small cushion at the top. Unlike most other rooms in the library, this one had no paintings on the walls. Instead, the walls were covered in some sort of wet, red fur.
‘It looks like some sort of mold,’ Two Brooks said, studying them. When she poked it, it gave way, and if felt soft like old silk.
But Oligoletto didn’t listen. His eyes were on the podium.
The thing lay on the cushion. It had to be It. Everything about it felt… right. This was what they had come for; this was the end of their adventure. Now all they had to do was to go back, however that would happen.
Nimbly he reached for it, but as he almost touched it, he heard a scream from Two Brooks. He turned. The red fur was racing up her arms, and seemed to want to totally devour her.
‘Two Brooks!’ Oligoletto cried, the way it is done in situations like this, and reached for his battle axe on his back.
With swift chops, he severed some of the red fur, and managed to pull Two Brooks away from the walls, and into the room’s centre, to where the thing lay on its cushion. They stood with their backs against each other. Both had pulled their weapons.
‘What the hell is this?’ Oligoletto demanded. ‘Some sort of magic?’
‘I… I don’t think it is magic,’ Two Brooks said. ‘I… I think this whole building is alive.’
‘What?’ Oligoletto looked at her as if she was insane.
‘I think it is alive. That’s why no one’s ever found any remnants of the people who built it, because it was not built… maybe inhabited for a while by the people who wrote the books and painted the paintings, but never built… this whole place is a creature, Oligoletto… It’s alive. Or at least, this room is… That is not just some sort of mold or fungi on the walls, it’s something larger… Something more evolved…’
Oligoletto’s axe and shoulders sagged.
‘That means we are trapped here, ‘ he said, sinking to the floor. ‘Like rats…’
‘Rats are never trapped,’ Two Brooks interrupted. ‘They just find a way out, and that’s what we have to do too. Did you get it?’
‘Yes, I understand what you mean, but-‘
‘Not that! The thing we came for? Did you get it?’
‘Right,’ Oligoletto said, and reached for it. It was small, but felt surprisingly heavy.
All around them, the walls bulged and heaved themselves towards them, as Oligoletto put it in his pocket.
‘Now I’ve got it,’ he said. ‘So what do we do now?’
The walls came closer, and Two Brooks had to sever a few of the red arms before she could reply. ‘We wait,’ she said.
‘Wait?’ Oligoletto cried. ‘Wait for what? Goddammit, we’re fighting a house as large as a smaller town! We can’t wait for it to get tired of us!’
‘I know,’ Two Brooks replied. ‘But consider this: hardly anyone has been in here since the second Wave, right? And most of the people who have have come back, right?’
‘Yes, but I don’t see-‘
‘So that would mean that all it has been able to eat since the first Wave, is small animals who have happened to get in here somehow, right?’
‘I suppose so…’
‘And considering how long it is since it ate the first Wave, it ought to be practically starved. If we can just make it bleed enough, and try enough to get us, perhaps it will wear itself out?’
‘It’s an idea! And I like that idea! Let’s show it what we are really made of, right?’
And with combined efforts, they severed most of the tendrils and arms and fur, leaving the unexpected apparition bleeding from more gaps than they could count.
However, this seemed to have no effect. Every now and then, the walls attacked with new vigour and new strength, and every time, it got closer to the middle. It seemed hopeless.
‘It doesn’t work!’ Oligoletto pointed out. ‘And I don’t know for how long I can keep this up.’
But before Two Brooks had time to answer, the walls attached again, and this time, it pressed the two adventurers tightly together at the centre of the room.
‘Blast these walls!’ cried Oligoletto, slashing madly around himself. ‘We’re gonna die here, that’s for sure!’
‘Don’t be too sure,’ a Two Brooks said. ‘There is still a way out that you don’t know of.’
Oligoletto almost turned, but a sudden attack of the mold forced him to fight instead.
‘What do you mean?’ he asked.
‘Well, Coulat gave me this,’ Two Brooks said, and produced a small cube from her pocket. ‘I was going to tell you about it, but as ‘you men’ had so many secrets, I decided to keep this secret, until I knew if we would have to use it.’
‘What is it, then?’
‘It’s one half of a portal. Coulat has the other half, but it needs to be activated from both ends. He showed me how it works, but we need more room.’
‘If it’s room you need, then we’d better do our best to give you room. I want out of this hell-hole as soon as possible!’
Saying so, Oligoletto unleashed a massive attack on the arms of one side, cutting and slashing, until Two Brooks said that the free space would be sufficient, as long as they could keep the red mold at bay for a minute or so.
The mold seemed reluctant to attack again, maybe because it was tired – like Two Brooks had suggested – or maybe because it feared Oligoletto’s axe. After a minute, Two Brooks reported that it was all set up.
‘Got it! Now we only have to wait for Coulat to get the signal, and we’ll be out of here in no time!’
Almost as if they had been watching her, and knew what she was talking about, the mold suddenly crept closer, sneaking its way towards the cube, which hummed gently. To Two Brooks, it seemed like the cube even attracted the furry arms.
Then the mold attacked with new strength, and the apparent weakness they had shown when Two Brooks were setting up the portal was as if blown away. The two adventurers had to fight like the heroes of the Waves to keep the long, moist arms away from the cube.
‘Why won’t that bloody portal open?’ Oligoletto cried. ‘What is Coulat doing? He ought to know that we might want to come back any time!’
A particularly thick arm grabbed his chest, squeezed, and made him loose his breath. Another arm pierced Two Brooks’ leg, making her fall over.
‘May hell take Coulat for being late!’ Oligoletto tried to cry, but as the arm had begun crushing his ribs, his voice escaped him, and he had to fight fainting harder than he fought the arms.
‘That’s not very nice, is it?’ a voice said, and a dart of light shot past Oligoletto’s head and annihilated the arm that grabbed him.
Oligoletto risked a glance towards the voice. It was Coulat, the Herb Magician, and he was standing beside them, half his body on the other side of the portal, which he had finally opened.
‘Just step through here, and you’ll be safe again,’ he said, and those few words sounded like music to Two Brooks and Oligoletto. ‘But first, do you have it?’
Oligoletto wrestled away the last pieces of the arm that had grabbed him, and then patted his pocket. ‘Sure thing. Told you we’d get it!’
‘Good,’ Coulat said, and smiled. ‘Now, just step through here, and we’ll be out of here in no time.’
The two adventurers looked at each other, then dived to the portal. As the golden haze of the magic closed in around them, and they felt their bodies being transported out of the library, Two Brooks could hear Oligoletto ask her, ‘Are we heroes now?’
Two Brooks smiled.
‘Yes, Oligoletto. We are.’