Chapter 22
The Warrior's Triad

The Western Region of the Wasteland

"What makes a warrior? In one of the places I ventured to, they believed a warrior possessed three things: might, courage, and discipline. Might is the strength needed to overpower one's enemies. Courage is the spirit that is unafraid to wield that strength. Discipline is the mentality to control that strength and use it only when necessary. I can't say that I disagree with the principle. However, I think it applies to all people and not just warriors."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

It had been six days since the group was shipwrecked in the Wasteland, three days since they found the oasis. Their water supply was running dangerously low and they had no idea how much farther they had to go before reaching the monument Tariq spoke of. They all had their doubts about the path before them, but it was Sonia who was first to give those doubts a voice.
"Tell me again, why are we doing this?" she asked.
Mark replied, "We all agreed to investigate the monument, didn't we?"
"I mean, why are we trusting that sand rat? He's on Randwulf's side, isn't he? How do we know he isn't leading us into a trap? Or what if there's nothing but open desert out there?"
"His revenge is so important to him that he confronted us all on his own," Mark said. "If for nothing more than his own pride, he won't be satisfied unless he kills me by his own hand."
"I don't see how you can find much comfort in that."
"It means he won't try to use any underhanded tactics. This monument exists and there's something important to it. We don't know where else to go. It's better than wandering around without direction."
Sonia was hardly satisfied with this. "I don't like it."
"I can't say I like it much myself," Mark admitted, "but if you have any better ideas, I'd love to hear them."
It did not look like she had any alternatives in mind, but rather called out to Stefan in Bannish, "Hey, you, I know you can understand me. That pendant of yours can make water, can't it?"
Proving once again that he did in fact understand, Stefan replied (albeit in Byrnan), "Forget it. The Pendant is meant for attack. You shouldn't try to twist its power unless it's a life and death situation."
After Mark relayed what the fighter had said, Sonia told him, "Unless you can find another one of them oasis things, I'd say we're pretty much there. It took a lot of water to bring Teresa and Fire Boy back around. We won't last another day at this rate."
"Fine," Stefan said. "Try to wait until we stop to rest. And don't say I didn't warn you."
A few hours later, the group stopped for the midday heat and Stefan demonstrated his power. As Sonia was the one to bring it up, he insisted that she be the first one to try it. Sonia gladly accepted the challenge and held out a tin cup for him. Stefan focused energy into his pendant and carefully manifested just enough water to fill the cup. The fencer then boldly swigged down the whole thing in spite of Stefan's warnings. After swallowing hard, she made quite the face.
"Ugh, that's awful. I might as well be drinking bile."
Stefan was far from impressed. "Didn't I warn you? It'll keep you alive at least."
"It won't be too much of a strain on you to refill our waterskins?" Mark asked.
The fighter shook his head. "It doesn't take much effort to do this. Just make sure they know not to drink this stuff too fast. The body can't take too much of it at once. Like I said, the Pendant is meant for attack."
"I'll be sure to let them know."
As bad as it tasted, the conjured water was indeed enough to keep them going. An aquamancer was a handy thing to have in the desert, even one as contrary as Stefan. Thanks to his powers, the group was able to safely continue its journey.
Four days after their encounter with Tariq, they reached their destination. Three three-sided pyramids were set at each of the three corners of a giant triangular foundation. In the center was a colossal sphinx carved from the living stone of what was once a sizable outcropping. Between the forepaws of the sphinx was a large stone tablet with inscriptions in several languages. Though most of them were indecipherable, one was a variant of Academic, close enough to version Mark knew to make an adequate translation.

"I am the Judge of Worth. To all who seek to become true warriors, heed my words. Before you is the Warrior's Triad, three tombs dedicated as a proving grounds to all who dare to accept the challenge. The three tombs each represent an aspect of a warrior. To the east is the Pyramid of Might. Only the strong can survive its trials. To the south is the Pyramid of Courage. Only the brave will overcome. To the south is the Pyramid of Discipline. Self-control will lead you to victory. Your heart will decide which to choose. All lead to the same place. The challenge awaits you. Go forth!"

After giving the others a few moments to reflect on what the tablet said, Mark asked them, "Well, what do we do? Shall we accept the challenge?"
"What do you think's in there?" Edward asked.
"Beyond the trials, I don't have the slightest idea. It could be something that'll help us."
"And it could be nothing," Sonia said.
"Or worse, a trap," Giles added.
Mark shook his head. "Like I said, I don't think we have to worry about it being a trap, at least not a fatal one."
Sonia did not find this very comforting. "I'd rather avoid any traps if I could, fatal or not."
"I don't blame you," Mark said, "but what else are we going to do? Either we accept the trials or keep on wandering in the desert. I'd rather take my chances here. How about the rest of you?"
Mark was met with silence. As potentially dangerous as the pyramids were, there was nothing for them in the desert. There was no saying where the next settlement was or whether it would be as hostile as the last two towns they visited. As bad as the pyramids could be, the alternative was not any better.
Taking their silence as assent, Mark said, "Okay then, I say we split up. Each of us will take a different pyramid. Not counting Catherine, there are ten of us, so that breaks down to two groups of three and one group of four. The way I see it, the name of each pyramid is a clue to the sort of trials we'll find."
Edward stepped forward, resting his heavy sword on his shoulder to illustrate the point he was going to make. "Obviously I should be going to this Pyramid of Might."
"You're right," Mark agreed. "I was thinking that you should go with Giles and Adrienne."
The Prince was taken aback by his suggestion. "The freak? A woman? It's called the Pyramid of Might! What good is a woman in a place like that?"
"She's stronger than you think," Mark said.
"No need for me to accompany the little ætheling if he doesn't want me around," Adrienne said. "There are other pyramids."
"I have to admit being a little uncomfortable myself," Giles added. "I can't help but noticing that you've put the three of us together again."
"This has nothing to do with what happened in Scotia," Mark insisted. "You three are our strongest members and I figure you're the best equipped to take on the challenges of the Pyramid of Might."
"Well then, what about me?" Sonia asked.
"I want you to go to the Pyramid of Courage with Jill, Stefan and Ignatiy."
"Ha!" Stefan scoffed, picking up his own opportunity to take issue with Mark's suggestion. He eyed Ignatiy harshly. "If you think that scrawny little coward will do anything but get in the way, then 'courage' means something completely different to you Gladian pigs. Of course, he's also a weakling and a lunatic, so he wouldn't be much good in either of the other pyramids. You'd be better off leaving him here."
This alarmed poor Ignatiy, who immediately clung to Mark's sleeve, pleading, "Don't leave me! Don't leave me!"
Mark put a hand on Ignatiy's shoulder to reassure him. "I'm not going to leave you," he said, "or anyone else. You've got to be brave in there, Ignatko. Sonia will take care of you, Jill will take care of you, and yes, even Stefan will take care of you in spite of what he says. You'll be okay."
"Thanks for pushing the deadweight on me, cousin," Sonia said sarcastically. When Ignatiy looked at her unsurely, she amended what she said. "Don't worry, Stick, I was kidding. I've got your back. Just try to keep from going yellow on me." She looked back to Mark. "So that leaves you with the Pyramid of Discipline?"
"That's right. I'm guessing that its trials focus on self-control, so it should be less trying physically. It'll be the best place to go with Teresa and Catherine. I'll have Jasper helping me, too."
The fencer looked at her cousin incredulously. "Self-control, huh? Doesn't that rule out Tricky?"
"I refuse to leave Lady Catherine," Stefan insisted. "Replace me with that thief. He can go with the coward and those women."
"I think you'll do more good going in the Pyramid of Courage," Mark said. "You won't be away from Catherine long."
"What? Are you saying I'm not disciplined enough," Stephen asked sharply, "that you'd trust the discipline of that thief over mine?"
Mark had no attention of getting drawn into a fight. "I'm not saying anything but what I've already said. Please, Stefan, just do this without complaining."
Stefan crossed his arms. He clearly did not have any intention of following along with Mark's plan. This was exactly why Mark did not want Stefan in the Pyramid of Discipline. Yes, it took great discipline to hone himself into the nearly flawless fighting instrument he was, but while Stefan had an excellent command over his body, he had painfully little control over his heart. There was no doubt he was fearless, which was exactly why Mark wanted him to go to the Pyramid of Courage.
It looked like Mark was going to have to alter his plans in spite of his misgivings, but Stefan's body froze abruptly. It looked almost as if a cold breeze had swept over him, but there was nothing of the sort out in the desert. After a brief moment, Stefan seemed to snap out of it and held his forehead.
"What's wrong, Stefan?" Mark asked.
"Did you hear that?"
"Hear what?"
Stefan looked around, still trying to process what had happened. "I heard Lady Catherine's voice. In my mind, was it? She said she'll be awake soon, that there's a favorable future waiting for us if I go through the Pyramid of Courage."
Mark then realized that while Catherine had contacted him several times since Brenok transported her to Arma, this was the first time she touched Stefan's mind since she fell under Brenok's curse. It seemed wrong of her to ignore her faithful servant all this time, but Mark did not dare bring it up. If Stefan learned of her contact with him, he would surely fly into a rage. As it stood, it seemed that Catherine's intervention was working to change his mind.
"Alright," Stefan said, "I'll do it, but not because it's your plan. Only because Lady Catherine bids it."
That was good enough for Mark. His plan had to be on the right track for Catherine to personally defend it. All that remained was the execution, but first Mark delivered some parting words to his companions.
"Well, you all know where to go," he said. "Be careful, everyone. We don't know what's waiting for us in there. Be mindful of your surroundings. Be prepared for anything. I'll be seeing you on the other end. God be with you."
After identifying which pyramid was which, the group split up and ventured into the unknown. What was waiting for them in the pyramids? More importantly, what was on the other side of the trials?

* * *

As Mark's team descended into the Pyramid of Discipline, he channeled energy into his gems to light the way. Both he and Jasper carried Catherine's litter while Teresa followed alongside them. The corridor was fairly narrow, no more than eight or nine feet wide. The air was filled with an eerie howling that put the timid Teresa on edge. Jasper did what he could to comfort her.
"Doan' fiah, moi gel. Mahk an' Oi woan' le' anyfin' 'appen tah ye. Ain' Oi roi'?"
Mark nodded. "It's only the wind, Teresa. Look up near the ceiling. Those holes are vents to the surface. The winds blow in and make that sound. It's meant to unnerve us, distract us. We have to stay focused."
They did not go much farther when Jasper told Mark, "'Old ap thay, yun' mastah." When they stopped, Jasper looked to Teresa. "Teyk fis fah moi, luv. Oi've gow' wo'k tah dew."
Once Teresa took Jasper's end of the litter, he crouched down for a moment and when he stood back up, he had a lit torch in his hand. (Somehow he had all the necessary materials on his person.) He walked in front of Mark and motioned for him to stay where he was. The thief intently examined the floor and walls, moving with amazing speed and deliberation.
"Presshah pleyts on th' flow an' wowz," Jasper said. "I' ye doan' tech th' wowz an' onley wa'k wher Oi dew, wi shood beh foin."
Teresa was not strong enough to carry Jasper's end of the litter while he guided them through the traps, so they had to come up with a different arrangement. Mark carried Catherine piggyback while Teresa rolled up the litter and carried on her shoulder, careful to heed Jasper's warning to walk straight lest the litter accidentally set off one of the wall plates. The floor plates were varying sizes and spaced unevenly, and though Jasper could nimbly navigate his way through the traps, Mark and Teresa had to move slowly. Patience and caution were not only aspects of discipline but the key to overcoming the first trial
Once they passed through the first set of traps, their surrounding changed dramatically. The light of Jasper's torch produced enough sparkles to rival the stars in the night sky and a shine that challenged the sun. Instead of bare stone, the walls were gilded from floor to ceiling. The walls were covered in pictographs embedded with a variety of precious and semiprecious gems. Little alcoves dotted the walls and held all sorts of treasures: statues of alabaster and onyx, ivory carvings and jewel-encrusted pieces of metalwork in gold and silver. His thief's blood boiling at the sight of such bounty, Jasper was practically salivating.
"Don't touch anything," Mark warned. "Remember that this is a test of our self-control. It's a trap and you know it."
Jasper was having great difficulty restraining himself. "Oi kin 'andle i'. No trep kin bes' meh. Wi need bar'erin' chips, doan' wi? Oi kin gi' us sum guhd uns an' a bi' fah moisel', too."
"Jasper!" Mark yelled sternly. "Would you put us all in danger for a couple trinkets? Would you sacrifice Teresa for petty greed?"
Taking the harsh rebuke seriously, Jasper hung his head and sighed. "No, a' much a' Oi b'leev i' moi feevin' skills, Oi coodn' liv wif moisel' i' sumfin' 'appen'd tah ye o' moi gel." Mustering his resolve, he straightened up. "Oi'll beh strowng, doan' ye wurry."
Unlike the previous areas, there were no traps on the floor. The test was designed exclusively to catch anyone who attempted to claim on of the alcove treasures or pry the decorative gemstones loose. Neither Mark nor Teresa had any interest in the treasures and with Jasper controlling his larcenous inclinations, they passed through without incident. The gilding gave way to normal stone relief, indicating the start of another trap. Jasper motioned for Mark and Teresa to stop.
"Oi fink Oi noo wo' fis is."
Unlike the floors up to this point, which were comprised of large limestone slabs, the floor in the third test was comprised of square tiles about nine inches wide, each with an inscription on it. After rapping his knuckles in a few different places, Jasper slammed his foot down on one of the floor tiles, causing it to crumble and fall away. The thief whistled as he looked into the inky blackness below.
"Weyt 'eah a momen'," he told Mark and Teresa. "Oi'll foind th' pef throo fis."
Jasper went across the floor deliberately breaking the false tiles so there would be no confusion about the true path. When he was done, there was nothing but a scattered few islands amidst the yawning abyss, extending well beyond the reach of the torch's light. The thief nimbly bounded back to the others. He made it look easy, but it was certain quite to be the challenge.
For a moment, Mark considered using the Earth Pendant to raise some larger stone pillars. As tempting as the idea was, he could sense the magic about the pyramid. He did not know exactly what its nature was, but there was a good chance it would react negatively to any attempt to use his powers to circumvent the test's challenge.
"No' meenin' tah beh rood tah ye, yun' mastah," Jasper said, interrupting Mark's thoughts, "bu' yel 'ave an 'ahd toim o' i' wif th' ledy on yer beck loike thah'. If'n is no offens tah ye, Oi'd loike tah kerry 'er ovah tah th' uvah soide fah ye."
"Of course," Mark said.
The swordsman did not suffer from Stefan's jealousy. He knew Catherine stood a better chance of making it across safely in Jasper's hands than his own and gladly handled her over. However, he became concerned when Jasper placed his torch on the ground. Of course he could not carry both Catherine and the torch, but it left the very significant problem of navigating the darkness.
"Wait, Jasper," Mark intervened. "How are you going to see where you're going?"
"Oi doan' need tah seh tah noo wher Oi'm gewin'," the thief replied. "Tres' meh, yun' mastah. Oi noo wo' Oi'm dewin'."
Mark had his reservations, but he decided to trust Jasper's instincts. He stood on the edge of the abyss and held out the torch as far as his arm could reach. It was all he could do to help.
Even with the added burden of Catherine's weight, Jasper effortlessly sprang from one narrow stone pillar to the next. Although Mark was confident in Jasper's abilities, he could not help feeling nervous when the thief disappeared into the shadows. He strained his ears for the sound of Jasper's footfalls. Would he even hear anything if the thief missed? A few tense moments passed until Jasper appeared bouncing back toward them.
Turning his back to Teresa and crouching, Jasper said, "'Op on, luv. Oi doan' won' ye troyin' tah meyk thays jahmps owl boi yersel'. Bu' pu' doun thah' li'ah, wood ye? Oi'll gi' i' leytah."
Teresa looked rather uncomfortable with the idea of being carried by Jasper, but he had done it before when she was overcome with heatstroke and the prospect of her crossing the abyss on her own were far less appealing. She put down the litter and then, somewhat hesitantly, climbed on Jasper's back.
Hoisting her up, the thief told her, "'Ang on toit, luv, bu' no' too toit. Oi 'ave tah breev, ye noo."
Jasper dropped Teresa off on the other side and was back in short order. He took Catherine's litter under his arm and took back his torch in his free hand.
"'Tis yer tahn, yun' mastah," the thief said. "Teyk yer toim. Thay's no need tah resh. "Oi'll beh roi' b'oin' ye."
Lacking Jasper's uncanny ability to land safely every time even in total darkness, Mark channeled energy into his gems once again to light his way. Having Jasper follow behind with his torch also helped. Most of the individual pillars were close enough together that he did not need to jump, but they were too small to comfortably accommodate both feet. It was not easy, but Mark's sense of balance was pretty good and his gear did not get in the way very much. Before long, he was on the other side, where Teresa and Catherine were waiting. Jasper followed shortly after.
They put Catherine back on her litter for the time being, figuring it would be safe enough until the surroundings proved otherwise. As they got ready to move onward, they found a door only a short distance away. Like the tablet in front of the sphinx, there was an inscription in several languages on the wall near the door. It read, "Go forward only if you are prepared for the final trial."
Jasper then found a switch that apparently opened the door. He looked to Mark for approval. The swordsman nodded. There was nothing for them to do but move onward.
Once the switch was pulled, the door slowly grinded open. Whatever was waiting for them on the other side, he could only hope the others were not far behind.

* * *

Edward, Giles and Adrienne had not gotten along particularly well the first time they had teamed up, and this time did not look to be much different. While Giles played the role of the mediator and sought the common good, Edward and Adrienne each had their own idea of how things were supposed to be done and showed little sign of compromising for the benefit of someone else. If the trials of the Pyramid of Might were only tests of strength, they might just get through in one piece, Giles thought.
The first obstacle was a large block swinging back and forth as a pendulum. Curiously, the breadth of its swing never changed, as if some hidden force kept it going perpetually. Crawling under it would not have worked because the pendulum missed the floor by only a couple inches at its trough and there just as little clearance along the sides.
Edward suggested that he shatter the stone. Actually, his suggestion involved pulling out his mace and swinging at the pendulum as it approached him. Not only did his mighty blow fail to even chip the stone, it also did nothing to affect its inertia. The huge block would have smashed the Prince's face in had Adrienne not snatched him by his collar and yank him back. As he lay on the ground wondering how a mere woman was able to pull around all twenty stone of his weight, the dhampir glared at him.
"Do us a favor and leave the thinking to abler minds," she hissed. She looked to Giles, holding out her hand. "Your knife."
Giles obliged, drawing his knife and extending the hilt to her. Taking the knife, Adrienne waited for the pendulum to swing back their way. At its trough, she hopped on top of the block and began to saw at the rope that connected the block to the ceiling. By the time the block was swinging away from Giles and Edward, the rope could no longer support the stone's weight and snapped. Adrienne jumped off just before the block crashed into the floor. Because both the floor and the pendulum were made of sturdy limestone, the block actually bounced off the floor, neither one receiving much damage.
Adrienne looked back at the others. "That's how it's done," she said. She tapped her forehead. "There's might here, too, for those who have it. Now let's get moving."
Since she had saved his life and, more importantly, because he was not fond of speaking to her, Edward kept his anger to himself and said nothing. Not particularly eager to get between them if a fight broke out, Giles allowed himself a faint sigh of relief before moving onward.
Not far ahead, they came upon a dead end. The only problem was that the corridor did not have any branches. There was no other way to go. The three noted depressions carved into the wall that resembled handholds. Unable to see the way forward, Edward crossed his arms and eyed Adrienne.
"What's the plan from the genius strategist?" he asked sarcastically.
"We lift it," she replied.
"That's it!? And you criticize my thinking!?"
"I'm not the one who thought he could take on a half ton rock."
"Let's get on with it," Giles insisted, wanting their bickering to end.
Hardly satisfied to drop the argument, Edward glared mightily at Adrienne. She met his glare, held up her right hand and cracked her knuckles. As Edward and Giles squatted down to grab a handhold, the Prince shot a look back at Adrienne.
"I don't see a woman being much help," he said. "You might as well stay there."
Bemused, Adrienne replied, "Try it."
The Prince looked to Giles. "On three," he said. "One, two... three!"
As much as the two men struggled, one would easily conclude that the obstacle before them was not a door but a wall. In spite of the difficulty they were having, they managed to lift the door a couple inches, but it was hardly enough for them to get through. The Prince and the pikeman finally reached their limit and were forced to let go. The door slammed down on the floor with a loud thud. Edward sat down, breathing heavily from the exertion.
"Can't... lift..." he panted. "Too... heavy..."
Adrienne crouched by the door. "Let's try that again," she said.
"Are you... are you daft, wench?" Edward growled irritably, still trying to catch his breath. "What... what difference can you, ha... make?"
"Many hands make light work."
"We don't have anything to lose," Giles said.
Edward was not particularly keen on this idea, but the prospect of proving Adrienne wrong was apparently enough to motivate him. The three squatted side by side (the narrow corridor scarcely affording them enough room to do so) and they each grabbed the handholds.
"One more time," Edward said, his voice showing absolutely no faith in their chances of success. "On three. One, two... three."
The Prince's unemphatic count notwithstanding, he put honest effort into lifting the door. The cooperation of all three companions instantly began to pay off as the door steadily inched upward. Of course, Adrienne was purposefully holding back her full powers lest it be too obvious. Once they had raised the door to chest level, they started to move one leg over the threshold.
"What about the torch?" Giles asked.
The pikeman had set down their only source of illumination before making the first attempt to lift the door. Although Adrienne did not need light to see, she once again had to consider the necessity of keeping her powers as secret as possible. She stretched out her leg and swept the torch to the other side. The dhampir realized that no ordinary person could bear such a heavy load while balancing on one leg, even momentarily, but she rightly judged that the other two were two preoccupied by the weight of the door.
As they began to move their other leg to the opposite side, it became clear that they were not going to be able to turn their hands around without compromising their hold on the door.
"What're we supposed to do now?" Edward demanded.
"We jump," Adrienne replied. "Ready? Now!"
Thankfully, Edward and Giles had fast enough reflexes to jump when told, but Adrienne lagged behind them ever so briefly just in case one of them did not react quickly enough. The door had been rather loud after dropping a matter of inches and when it hit the floor this time, the noise was deafening. Besides some ringing in their ears, they were no worse for wear from the ordeal. Giles picked up the torch off the floor and without needing to say anything, the three companions move onward.
They did not get far when Edward accidentally stepped on a pressure plate. The corridor echoed with the tortured groans of ancient machinery rumbling to life. It was difficult to tell what was happening, but soon it became clear. Slowly, steadily, the walls were closing in on them.
"Don't just stand there, you fools!" Adrienne snapped. "Run!"
Edward and Giles did not need to be told twice. Neither one was a particularly fast runner, but they dashed forward as fast as their legs could carry them. It would have been easy for Adrienne clear the obstacle, but there would not be much profit in it if she lost her two companions. She stayed behind, using her own body to try to keep the walls apart and hoping the other two would be too preoccupied to notice what she was doing.
Despite Adrienne's enhanced dhampir strength, she could no stop the wall, only slow its advance. As the corridor got narrower and narrower, Edward's broad pauldrons became a liability. He quickly found himself wedged between the two walls and unable to move. Giles was little better off, but he had made it farther. The light of his torch just barely reached the end of the corridor, illuminating a switch on the far wall. Even with its enchantment, Giles was not sure his pike would reach, but h had to try. Gripping his pike by the tail-end, he thrust his arm forward with such force than it nearly ripped his arm from the socket. The pike shot forward, squarely hitting the switch. The walls grinded to a halt. The corridor echoed with groans once more and then the walls started to recede. They were saved.
While Edward and Giles were distracted, Adrienne quickly closed the distance between them to make it look like she had been following more closely. Giles was too busy rubbing his injured shoulder and Edward was fingering the bent tips of his pauldrons, so neither one noticed. Lest something else happen while they were standing around, they wasted no time clearing the trap. They found themselves at the end of the corridor, facing a door with an inscription they could not read. They could only hope it was the 'same place' mentioned in the sphinx's tablet.

* * *

Stefan did not like being separated from Catherine, but he felt the Pyramid of Discipline was probably the safest one of the three. He could not reconcile his feelings about Mark, but at least his former friend had shown some effort to protect Catherine. The two Gladian women with him had proven their competence in the past and despite being Gladians, they were marginally tolerable as companions. He could not say the same about Ignatiy, whose presence had become even more irritating to him in the ten years since they had last traveled together.
Only a few fathoms into the corridor, a couple dozen severed heads fell from the ceiling, dangling by thin ropes and bristling with bronze spikes. A crude attempt to injure intruders, or at least to frighten them. Predictably, Ignatiy shrieked like a woman, extinguishing the flame he had manifested to guide them, while the actual women were unfazed. The Gladian fencer conjured a new flame to light the way. Stefan then took the opportunity to bat the heads to the ground lest they fall on the group while they pass.
Next, they encountered a deep pit with the tips of spikes barely visible from where they stood. The first to cross was the archer, who leapt with the grace of a deer and effortlessly cleared the obstacle. The next was the fencer, who made a successful jump with surprising agility given the encumbrance of her armor. The jump would not be any problem for Stefan, but he knew it was beyond the capacity of the scrawny Ignatiy. He had been a poor jumper ten years ago and in his atrophied state, he stood even less of a chance.
Without telling Ignatiy what he was about to do, Stefan took hold of him from behind, gripping him by his belt and jerkin, and lifted him off the ground. The firebug cried out in protest, but Stefan was not listening. After a few good swings, he hurled Ignatiy over the pit like a sack of turnips. He almost did not make it, but a near miss was nothing to get worked up about. Stefan then jumped across himself, barely noticing a critical look from the fencer.
"That was dangerous," she said in Bannish. "You could've at least had the decency to tell him what you were doing."
Ignatiy was lying on the floor whining and whimpering. Stefan gave him a good kick. It was not meant to cause any real damage, just strong enough for him to feel it.
"Shut up!" Stefan snapped. "You're not hurt."
Stefan was not expecting the fencer to grab him by his collar and slam him into the wall. In his anger at Ignatiy, he had let his guard down. He would not have expected anyone but Mark to stand up for the pathetic firebug.
"Do that again," she growled, "and I'll see how well you fly."
The fighter was not about to suffer a lecture from a woman, and especially not from a Gladian. He broke her grip on him and was about to put her in her place when he found that he had made another critical oversight. First, he forgot to account for the archer. Second, the reflexes of both women rivaled his own. The point was made inescapably clear by the main gauche pointed at his gut and the hunting knife at his neck.
He met the fencer's glare. She was bluffing, only trying to make a point. She did not have any intent to kill him. It made her vulnerable. He could not be so sure about the archer. He weighed his options. Surely he could best two mere women, but was it worth it?
In the end, Stefan did not have to back down because the fencer made the first move. She returned her main gauche to its sheath.
"We don't have time for this," she said. "Let's go."
The fencer nodded for the archer to stand down and she promptly complied. The fencer then went over to Ignatiy to help him up.
"You're okay," she told him. "Come on, we still got a ways to go. Hang in there."
As they were walking, Stefan gave Ignatiy a particularly contemptuous look. "I'm tired of saving your worthless life," he said. "If you weren't so weak, I wouldn't've had to do that in the first place."
"Leave him alone," the fencer intervened. "Not everyone can be strong. And besides, he's been a prisoner in Darkwall for years. It's a miracle he can even walk about as well as he does."
Why she bothered to talk to Stefan at all was a mystery. While he could mostly understand the Bannish she used with him, he had no intention of replying in kind. He thought he had made it abundantly clear that he had no intention of communicating with Gladian pigs. Or sows as the case may be.
They did not get much farther when the floor was replaced by an expanse of sand. Stefan picked up a broken piece of rock and threw it at the sand. As he suspected, it sank as soon as it landed. Quicksand. Just what they needed.
Looking around, he saw a metal hook hanging from the ceiling. He could use that. Tying his sash to his quarterstaff, he made an improvised grapnel and a deft throw secured the staff in place. He gave the sash a couple experimental tugs to ensure it would hold. Wrapping the other end of the sash around his arm, he swung. The hook groaned slightly from his weight, but he did not think it was much of a problem.
Once his feet were on the ground, he punched the wall, intending to break loose a piece of rock, but the stone used to make the pyramid was stronger than he had anticipated. Instead of a piece of rock, he had to settle for tying one of his shoes to the sash as a weight. He then swung the sash back to the opposite side where the archer caught it.
She swung across with ease and sent the weighted end back to the fencer. When the fencer swung across, the hook groaned a little louder, her gear to blame, no doubt. Before she could send the weighted end to Ignatiy, Stefan snatched the sash from her.
"I don't trust him to do this on his own," he said, even though he knew she could not understand Byrnan.
He swung to the other side and grabbed Ignatiy about the waist.
"Hold on tight," he ordered, "because I won't go diving in after you."
The hook groaned even more loudly this time, finally breaking loose from the ceiling just as they reached the other side. They both landed roughly on the rock edge of the floor. It was not exactly a pleasant experience, but it was infinitely better than landing in the sand.
Stefan drew his staff out of the sand and untied it from his sash. As he was winding the sash around his waist, the others went ahead. They did not have to go far before they found the door and the end of the corridor. Would it lead to the common ground of the Triad and if so, what was waiting for them on the other side?

* * *

When Mark's group went through the portal, they found themselves in a wide chamber resembling an arena. The stench almost made them gag. The whole chamber stank of filth, blood and death. A few rats could be seen scurrying around scattered bones. Human bones. There were no complete skeletons, at least none nearby. They had all been torn apart, either before death or after.
The place was obviously dangerous. They needed to be ready for an attack. Mark and Jasper set down the litter and Mark made a hand signal for Teresa to stay there with Catherine. The swordsman figured they would be relatively safe so close to the door.
Not knowing what to expect, Mark considered extinguishing their lights as a defensive measure, but he thought better of it. He would rather face a danger he could see than risk stumbling on one he could not. As Mark and Jasper slowly moved forward with weapons drawn, they could see the others emerging from their respective corridors.
Altogether, the three groups had enough light to fill the chamber with a dull glow. It revealed a great many bones scattered about. Just like the ones closest to the door, there were no complete skeletons. Whatever had gotten ahold of them had ripped them to pieces. At least some it had been recent and more than likely, whatever had done it was still in the chamber.
The light was not strong enough to banish the heavy shadows cast by the pillars holding up the roof. Cloaked in those shadows was the figure of a large, armored man sitting on the floor. His gruff, scratchy voice pierced the silence.
"More... food...?"
The rasping voice spoke in Bannish. Clearly it was not one of the locals, but who could it be? Or, perhaps more appropriately, what could it be?
The glow of orange gems revealed what could only be an Elemental Knight, the Destroyer. Illuminated by the Gems, the group got a good look at him. No ordinary person could help but be taken aback by what they saw. Because of its powerful enchantments, the Destroyer's gear was pristine, but his clothes were nothing but filthy, tattered rags. Whatever he had been through, it could only be described as horrific. His whole body was covered in scars from countless cuts and extensive burns. All that remained of his right arm was a shriveled stump and thick scar tissue covered the empty socket that once held his left eye.
Other than the rats and maybe some insects, he appeared to be the only living thing in the chamber. There was no way of telling how long he had been there. Even if it had only been for a matter of days, what will could drive a man to survive in such a place, in such a miserable state? As if to answer the unspoken question, the Destroyer broke down into a deranged mix of crying and laughing.
"To early for food... They don't feed Tardos so soon... Make him wait, make him starve... Only way to make him eat... make him eat..."
Tardos suddenly went into a fit, thrashing wildly and screaming uncontrollably.
"EAT FLESH!!" he bellowed. "DRINK BLOOD!!"
The Destroyer's fit exploded in an ear-splitting roar. With his one hand he lifted up the ancestral weapon of his house, a blade which rivaled Edward's. He lifted it with unnatural ease, the first, best warning that they were not dealing with any ordinary man, not even a typical Elemental Knight.
With a broad swing of his massive sword, a wave of fire swept across the floor, rushing in Sonia's direction. Sonia raised a barrier around her group, but she had no idea of the power she was up against. The barrier held when the wave hit, just barely, while the fencer was sent flying back into the wall.
Mark charged his sword and sent several lightning bolts crackling through the mad Destroyer. Tardos only howled and loosed a jet of flame at the swordsman. Mark's first instinct was to dodge the attack, but he remembered that Teresa and Catherine were behind him. Rather than expose them to danger, he stood his ground, putting all the energy he could muster into raising a barrier. The flames struck with the force of a battering ram, but it was nevertheless weaker than the attack that Sonia had fended off. Although the blast pushed him back, he was able stay on his feet.
While Mark was weathering Tardos' attack, Stefan shot a stream of water at Tardos and knocked him off balance. The Destroyer responded with a new jet of flame directed at him. Though Stefan probably could have dodged it on his own, Jill jumped on him, flattening him to the ground as the flame jet roared overhead.
Edward seized the opening, charging forward with a bellow and sword raised. However, Tardos was not so distracted that he could not see the Prince coming. The two huge blades clashed, but the Destroyer was considerably stronger than Edward, even single-handed, and knocked him to the ground. Tardos raised his sword to finish off the vulnerable Prince when Adrienne's whip coiled around his arm. He responded with more strength than the dhampir anticipated, flinging her into the air with a powerful jerk of his arm.
Giles thrust with his pike, only to land a glancing blow off the Destroyer's chest plate. Tardos sent a white-hot flame to the pikeman, who deflected it with his enchanted shield. The blast struck one of the pillars, the heat so great that the stone glowed a molten red.
While everyone else was keeping Tardos busy, Sonia, Stefan and Mark combined their powers for a tri-elemental strike. It was an impressive-looking attack, but much to their dismay, it barely even shook his stance. The Destroyer seemed to be unstoppable.
As the battle went on, the intensity of Tardos' rage only burned hotter. Froth poured from his mouth as he howled like a beast and shot off attacks at random. Finally, with his fury at its peak, he broke off his attacks and lowered his sword, but this was only the prelude to something far more terrible. All thirteen of his gems shone at once, bathing the chamber in orange light. A tremendous wave of heat and energy expanded from his body, peeling away layers of stone like paper.
The group rallied together while Mark, Sonia, Stefan, and Ignatiy combined their barriers to protect everyone. As powerful as their combined strength was, the barrier visibly wavered when confronted with the blast. It did not look like it could prevail against such a massive amount of raw power.
In the very instant it looked like they would be overwhelmed and roasted alive, the magical energy flooding the chamber was abruptly cut off, both the Destroyer's and their own. Tardos' body was completely paralyzed, quivering in frozen rage. The only problem was that everyone else's bodies were paralyzed as well. What was going on?
The answer emerged from the shadows. Catherine. Fully awake and fully in control of her powers, she glided across the floor like a ghost. She approached Tardos, whose surviving eye was wide with fear. There were no grand displays. All she did was softly touch the Destroyer's scarred cheek. His eye closed and his body went limp.
As Tardos' body fell to the ground, Catherine turned to the group and everyone was able to move again. Though her expression was calm and serene, she radiated pure, deadly power. With a touch she robbed a mighty warrior of his life, with a thought made all of them her puppets. Especially for those how had only known her as an inert, comatose doll, this new demonstration of her power stirred fear in the depths of their hearts. Surely she sensed that fear, but it had no effect on her aura of frigid serenity. She addressed everyone in the group, speaking not by voice but to each of their minds directly.
We have not all been properly introduced. My name is Ekaterina Fyodorovna. You know me as Catherine. As you can see, I have finally awakened. For those of you who protected me, I thank you. For those who tried to cast me aside, I forgive you. I am not a petty creature, you need not fear. There will be no vengeance for the past, only a reckoning for the present and a decision for the future.
Now that I have overcome Brenok's spell, my power has reached a new level. As a consequence, I have lost my natural voice and can only communicate through your minds. For those who have never experienced telepathy before, rest easy. It is quite harmless.
We have larger matters to attend to. The time has come for us to end this conflict. Form a circle around me and join hands. I will take you to Gladius.
No one dared to disobey her. They formed a circle and joined hands as she had asked. Catherine rose into the air and spread her arms wide. A blinding light consumed everything.

* * *

When the light faded, Mark saw that they had indeed returned to Gladius, only a few miles from Stormtree by his estimate. The group looked around in disbelief of what had just happened.
Her work complete, Catherine brought herself closer to the ground and began to hover toward Mark. Before she could get within arm's reach of him, she whirled around abruptly, facing the southeast. Her telepathic cry struck with the force of a hammer.
Brace yourselves! They are coming!
None of them had a chance to react in time. By the time the heard Catherine's warning, the darkness had already claimed them.