This sixteen-chapter novel is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series and the Lost City D&D module. I do not profit from it. It’s a story set prior to the events of the television seasons, before the boys met Eleven. If I learn that the Duffer Brothers or Wizards of the Coast do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if either of them order a cease-and-desist, I will pull the story down.
The Lost City — Chapter Seven:
The Spider of Usamigaras
The trick to the spider climb was to not think so hard about it. Press one hand firmly, lift the other, and same with the feet. Imagine a single crawling movement, and soon it was streetwalking. Think too hard, and you overcompensated; next the ground was claiming you.
The trick was not – contrary to what Shanti insisted – to not look down. Will loved looking down, and he never mucked his steps when he did. He loved looking down because he felt a secret power over those below him. He had no fear of heights, so vertigo wasn’t a problem.
Auriga was below him now – far below, almost eighty feet – watching his student with the usual mixture of pride and contempt. They were down in the city, at the cavern wall on the east side, not far from the stronghold of Usamigaras. Their weekly trip, and Will’s favorite day, when he could test his limits.
The more perilous the wall, the more it called to him. He loved how it felt, to crawl up and across ceilings in bare feet. The city ceiling was too high – two hundred feet from the ground at least – but he’d conquer it some day. If fly was the more powerful spell (Will had yet to learn it), spider climb was artfully superior. It was so unobtrusive; the coveted technique of spies, thieves, and assassins. A hawk preyed openly, but a widow stalked in murderous silence. Will was the Magi’s widow: the Spider of Usamigaras.
He’d felt reborn receiving that moniker.
Two other Magi had spider climb in their spellbooks, but the alien child William Byers had mastered the art in less than half the time it took them to memorize the spell. Most of the Magi were proud to have a kid in their ranks, but some burned with envy. Auriga, for his part, seemed to enjoy fomenting whatever resentment he could of his prodigy.
He looked down at Auriga and saw him wave, the signal to keep going. Will grinned and resumed his crawl. Onwards and upwards, his mother used to say. He wished she and Jonathan could see him now. A hundred feet. I’ll make a hundred feet today. The city wall was a challenge, and not just because of the monstrous height. It wasn’t smooth like the walls of the pyramid rooms. There were natural rocky protrusions all over. The big and sharp ones could dislodge you, or fail to stick to the hands and feet, if you were crawling too fast or not careful.
Will wasn’t feeling careful; he was feeling his oats. He wanted to impress Auriga. The spell gave him twenty minutes of spider climbing, and he’d been on the wall for a little over five minutes. He still had time before he had to be back on the ground. He was a second level mage – an impossible achievement for a twelve-year old, and usually even for an adult in such short time – and proud of the spells he’d acquired. Auriga was now sixth level, having advanced impressively over the past few months. The other ten Magi in the temple ranged between first and third level. Shanti, Will’s best friend, was still only first. There wasn’t a sliver of envy in Shanti. If he were here, he’d be applauding me.
He must have been at ninety feet now. He paused and glanced below, thrilled by the vastness of open air. Everything below was inferior, insignificant; even Auriga. He went on upwards – and was hit by a sudden feeling of exhaustion. He stopped himself at once. Whoa. He shook his head to clear the fog, but he was getting weaker. It wasn’t vertigo. He’d been fine looking down moments before. Something else…
He began to panic. He was perched ninety feet above the ground, and his muscles were failing him. Auriga! He couldn’t shout for help even; all that came out was a raggedy gasp. And then fear knifed into him as he realized: It’s a spell. I’m under a spell. Someone was assaulting him. With no other recourse, he began a desperate crawl back down.
In his state of enfeeblement his left foot banged against a rocky protrusion, and he overreacted to compensate. Both of his feet slipped and his hands scraped uselessly across the wall. Then the wall was flashing past. The city floor rushed up to meet him. Mom! Help me!
A cushion of air arrested his fall a split second later. He tossed and turned, seeing that he was about twenty feet from the ground, and now falling like a feather. Auriga, he thought. The chief mage had saved him with a levitate spell.
When he touched the ground, Auriga’s look was a reprimand. “What have I told you about getting cocky?”
I did what you said! Will almost shouted. You told me to go higher! He’d seen the mage wave him upwards.
“Even the gifted need to be taken down a peg,” said the chief mage. “Today you were taken down quite a few.”
Will could hardly stand. His legs were shaking from the terror of the drop. “I… it was a spell. Someone put a spell on me.” He looked around the area but saw no one.
“Nonsense,” said Auriga. “You exceeded your limits and got fatigued. Let that be a lesson to you.”
No. There’s no way that was fatigue. He’d been at full capacity and then suddenly overwhelmed by an unnatural exhaustion. And then he saw the truth of it. You.
It was Auriga who had made him fall.
Later they lunched at the stronghold. The mess hall bustled with the usual activity. Will saw eight adults and three kids, two Magi, and the priestess Shira. But no sign of Dustin/Demetrius. At that moment he wanted to see Dustin’s face more than anything.
He and Auriga were eating a meal of maize and split yellow peas. The cooks called it split pea soup, but to Will it was split pea goop. He liked it that way – eating split peas like mashed potato. They didn’t often have split peas in the pyramid, despite the requests Will had put in for the supply runners. More of Auriga’s petty power plays.
But he loved his city trips with Auriga. The Usamigaran stronghold was a community for everyone, not just Magi. It felt warm and inviting here. He knew that Mike and Lucas felt the same about the Gormish stronghold – or at least Lucas did. Apparently Mike didn’t always visit the stronghold during their supply runs.
Will wasn’t a supply runner for the Magi. His best friend Shanti was, along with a mage named Makran. Will was too good for such tasks – and he was a child besides – so instead he was subjected to the backhanded privilege of praise and insults, and being set up to fail when he exceeded himself.
“You did good today otherwise,” said Auriga, feeding his face. “Great things are in store for you. I keep saying. But you need more discipline.”
Will nodded obediently. What will he do next to “discipline” me?
He knew that Auriga had sent him falling, and that the chief mage wanted him to know that without having to admit it. According to Demetrius, Auriga was a sadist with an inferiority complex. He enjoyed scaring and belittling Will both to gratify and feel better about himself. Then there were the logistics of spell casting. Auriga had saved him in the nick of time with levitate. That spell took only two seconds to cast, but a fall from the height of ninety feet had you on the ground in two seconds. There was no way Auriga could have reacted in time to levitate Will unless he’d known what was coming. It was obvious: he had cast some kind of exhaustion spell on Will, then immediately started the levitate spell to intercept Will’s fall.
It had occurred to Will on many occasions that Auriga was a terrible human being, but he refused to let that matter. He would certainly not tell his Hawkins friends about the indignities and dangers that came with being Auriga’s student. He was going to be a powerful mage, and the way to that future was Auriga, whether he liked it or not.
He looked up as someone came over from another table. It was the priestess Shira.
“Well, look who’s here,” she said, favoring Will with a greeting. “That day of week?”
Will smiled back at her. “Yeah.” He liked Shira.
“If you have time after lunch, you should join us in the courtyard. The kids are putting on a play. About Alexander and Zenobia.”
Auriga wiped his mouth with a napkin. He was seething at being snubbed by the priestess. “We should really be heading back,” he said, refusing to look at Shira.
“Thanks for inviting us,” said Will.
She smiled and proceeded to greet someone at another table.
“Shira,” called Will.
She stopped and looked back. “Yes, Will?”
“Is Demetrius around?” He knew the question would irritate Auriga, and that’s the main reason he asked it. Make me fall, will you?
“Yes, but he’s busy with Raen. If you stayed and waited a while… ” She glanced at Auriga who coughed irritably.
“It’s okay,” said Will. “Like Auriga said, we have to be going.” It wouldn’t do to provoke his teacher too much.
Shira smiled and moved on.
Auriga shoved his plate aside. “Are you finished?” he asked curtly.
“Almost,” said Will. He still had plenty of food on his plate, as the mage could easily see.
“Well since you eat so damn slow, and you’re determined to keep us here, give me the breakdown of the city’s population. Go.”
So this was his penance for speaking out of turn. No matter, he knew the figures by heart. Auriga had grilled him weeks ago on demographics. A while back the Magi had conducted a census of the underground city. Four of the Magi took lead on the project. It was about three years ago, but the population remained fairly constant in Cynidicea, with little outside interaction and no warfare to reduce the population by much. As for the problem of increase, the means of population control was at the sacrifice altar. The Zargonites put just enough victims under the knife – adults and youths – to maintain a steady population of around 1200. If you counted the goblin and hobgoblin population, the total was about 1600.
Will had the census committed by photographic memory. The current year was 1055 AC (“after the crowning” of some emperor in a foreign land, he forgot who). The census had been conducted in 1052 AC. He recalled the breakdown:
Census of Cynidicea, 1052 AC
In the Underground City
Throughout the City – 996 (809 adult citizens, 187 youths)
Temple of Zargon – 85 (25 priests, 36 warriors, 24 hobgoblins)
Stronghold of Gorm – 49 (4 priests, 10 warriors, 26 adult citizens, 9 youths)
Stronghold of Madarua – 36 (2 priestesses, 11 warriors, 17 adult citizens, 6 youths)
Stronghold of Usamigaras – 25 (3 priests, 5 mages, 13 adult citizens, 4 youths)
In the Goblin Cliffs – 300 (estimated; about 120 goblin and hobgoblin warriors at the emergency call of the Zargonites)
At the Catacombs – 100 (estimated; mostly hobgoblins who guard the area and patrol the main streets of the city)
In the Pyramid
Temple of Gorm – 11 (1 Grand Master, 10 warriors)
Temple of Madarua – 10 (1 Champion, 9 warriors)
Temple of Usamigaras – 12 (1 Chief Mage, 11 mages)
Apparently the Zargonites had accommodated the Magi students, even allowing them into the temple to see the numbers for themselves. The message was obvious. It was a blatant power display for the priesthood, putting their superior numbers beyond doubt and making it official, lest anyone – especially the old cults – get seditious ideas.
Will rattled off these numbers around mouthfuls of split peas, which Auriga barely acknowledged. He was wasting his breath but getting off easy; this penance could have been far worse. When he was finished with his facts and his food, he brought their dishware to the kitchen bins, and they headed back to the pyramid.
Two days later, Will got a surprise visit in the morning.
It had been at least two weeks since he’d seen his friend, and rushed around his desk to give him a hug. Dustin laughed and hugged him back.
“Thanks for that, Will,” said Dustin, releasing him. “I needed one of those. But I’m actually the other.”
Will looked up at him. “Demetrius?”
“The very same,” said the priest. “But I wouldn’t have gotten a hug like that if you’d known, right?”
Will smiled. He liked Demetrius – almost as much as Dustin. The priest would have gotten a hug anyway.
“By the gods, look at this space you have,” said Demetrius, marveling at Will’s privilege. “Your own room.”
It was part of his reward for being a prodigy. Almost a month ago, Auriga had cleared space in the Magi treasury room and made it Will’s private chamber. Will now slept in a room full of chests containing the Magi’s wealth. And he still had enough space left over to match the size of Auriga’s chamber.
“I know,” said Will. “I can’t believe Auriga does all this for me.” On top of playing tricks that nearly kill me. “Do you want to see him?”
“Ah… no,” said the priest. “I came to see you, actually.” He stopped and stared at the tapestry. “Leaving your mark, I see.”
The tapestry had been woven by Shanti and two other mages, and hung on the wall facing the room entrance. It was a giant widow spider. When Will sat at his desk – as he had been upon Demetrius’s entry – visitors saw the spider in the background over Will. The Magi took pride in their Spider Child.
“Do you like it?” asked Will. “Or is it… too much?”
The priest seemed lost in thought, and then answered: “Oh no, it’s fine, Will. Truly. I’m fully behind the Spider Child.”
“But you came to see me about something?” If he talks to me about pedophiles and the bird man, I’m going to scream.
“Yes, I did. Do you want to take a walk?” Demetrius looked pointedly around the room, at the walls and ceiling.
Will stood up, understanding. “Sure.” He knew that Demetrius wasn’t being paranoid. It was more than likely that Auriga had a scrying device planted somewhere in this room, though Will had never been able to find one. It may have been invisible. Not that it bothered him. With all the wealth stored in this room, he rather expected the chief mage to keep tabs on his private doings. Though that did contradict the libertarian platform of the Magi. Shanti’s refrain came back to him: Auriga is no true Magi.
“Good,” said Demetrius. “Let’s go outside.”
“The top?” asked Will, excited.
“You’ll never be a true Cynidicean,” laughed the priest, “if you like being out in the sun.”
Will grabbed his sun-goggles and key, and locked the door behind him as they left the room. They walked down the corridor that put them at the southwest door of the revolving passage. They didn’t have to push the button. The passage was still aligned at this door where Demetrius had left it.
Inside they swiveled the passage a full seven notches to align their door with the southern corridor. From there they went up the stairs to Tier 2.
“Can we stop and see Mike and Lucas?” asked Will as they climbed.
“If we must,” said the priest sourly.
“They might be sword training downstairs,” said Will.
At the top of the stairs they took a right detour down to Mike and Lucas’s room. Will knocked on the door but no one answered.
“Like you said,” said the priest.
Will nodded, disappointed, and they both retracted their steps to the corridor that went ahead, then branched right down to another door. They opened it and entered the central room of the tier.
It was the way to the desert surface, with three ladders spaced ten feet apart; each ladder climbed up to the first tier and beyond it to the top of the pyramid outside. The rest of the room was filled with weird looking parts of machinery, clay pots, and oil flasks. There was a small foundry – with a forge, anvil, tongs, and hammers. Will remembered Shanti saying the foundry was used in old days to fix broken parts of the three god-statues on top of the pyramid.
“Middle ladder,” said Demetrius, positioning himself to climb. Not that it mattered. All three led to the same place. He began his ascent.
Will climbed up after him. At the ceiling they entered a huge cylinder and kept climbing for twenty feet, until they reached a door in the cylinder wall. It was the door to Tier 1, which they bypassed – a single room filled with traps for the unfortunate. Any desert explorers who chanced upon the pyramid and entered uninvited got a rude surprise in that room.
They continued to the top, where the cylinder took on the shape of a hollowed-out statue. Will felt a thrill of excitement. They were inside the statue of Usamigaras – the way he’d come with Shanti. Like the other two statue interiors, this one had a special speaking tube. In the days when Cynidicea was a surface city – well over eleven hundred years ago – the priests of the old gods used these tubes to “speak the god’s will” to the people. The days of unity, thought Will. Before Zargon. When Brothers, Maidens, and Magi fought as one.
There were also levers inside the hollow, and Will reached for one, heaving it to one side. He needed both arms to move it, and even then it was hard. He was moving some part of the Usamigaras statue – an arm maybe, or the head, or the eyes – though no one was outside to see the effect.
“Enough play,” said Demetrius. “Let’s go. And put your goggles on.” The cleric was already strapping on his eye protection.
Will put on his goggles, which were an absolute requirement for walking the surface. Months of living underground had given him night eyes. When Demetrius opened the door at the base of the statue, Will squeezed his eyes shut as sunlight blazed in. Even with goggles on they needed to let their eyes adjust. Then they stepped out onto the pyramid top, and saw the desert.
It was a land out of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Will had been outside like this only twice: once with Mike and Lucas, and then a few weeks later with Shanti. All the cults forbade their members from going outside alone, and even partnered or group visits were discouraged. The desert was a lifeless, scorching, arid land, and there were occasional marauders bred to the climate. Hardly anything remained of old Cynidicea. A few ruins and stone blocks stood out, but the blowing sands had effaced most of them. Over three hundred yards away were hints of the old city wall, jutting out of the sand.
And then, overcome by the vast expanse, Will Byers started weeping. He missed Hawkins. Out here in the open sky he didn’t feel like the Spider of Usamigaras. He felt like the tiny kid he was, who needed to be home with his mom and Jonathan; to start middle school with Mike, Lucas, and Dustin; and to ride his bike for miles. He missed bike riding more than anything. There weren’t even horses down in the Lost City. Just a few camels.
Get a hold of yourself, dammit.
He hurriedly wiped his eyes under his goggles before Demetrius could see him crying. The priest had no patience for it. Will turned around to hide his face, and looked up at the statues. They towered like the titans of Greek mythology. Gorm stood thirty feet tall: a strong bearded man holding a balance of scales in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other. Madarua, also thirty feet, was on the other side: a female warrior holding a sword in one hand and a sheaf of wheat in the other. In the middle was Usamigaras, twenty feet tall: a winged child – some said he’d been a hobbit in mortal life – with two snakes twined about his body. The cherub/hobbit held a wand in one hand and a fistful of coins in the other. From within these statues, priests had blared out divine imperatives.
“Humbling, isn’t it?”
Will faced the cleric again. He nodded, still too overcome to speak.
“Cynidicea wasn’t always lost. It was a kingdom of thousands, not hundreds. But anyway. Now that we’re out here, tell me true. How has Auriga been treating you?”
Will’s heart picked up, but he kept a poker face. “Fine. You know, he’s a bit shifty, but… you know, a really good teacher.”
“Mm-hmm.” The priest regarded him carefully. “Shifty. I can think of other words I’d use to describe the man. You’re being charitable. And loyal. Good traits in a student, I suppose.”
Telling Demetrius about his ninety-foot fall was out of the question. Not that he didn’t trust the priest to keep a secret like that. He thought he probably could. It was Dustin he didn’t trust, and Dustin was hearing this now. Dustin would shoot off his mouth to Mike and Lucas at first opportunity, and they, in their overprotective fury, would descend on Auriga and remove Will from the Magi. Will wasn’t having that.
“I’m doing fine, Demetrius,” he said. “I’m happy in the Magi.”
Demetrius nodded absently and turned to look over the city ruins. He stayed quiet for a couple minutes. “I hate the outside,” he said finally, “but every once in a while, I like this view from the top. All this emptiness. And a reminder of what we once were.”
Will waited, unsure of what to say.
“You were a surface dweller in your world,” said the priest. “Underground life must be quite an adjustment.”
What’s eating at him? Whatever the priest wanted to discuss, it wasn’t Will’s welfare or fresh air.
Demetrius went on before getting a response: “I try to imagine Cynidicea when it was up here under the sky. The glory days. I guess most places in the world still are still like that.” He looked at Will. “What about where you’re from? Are there underground cities in your world? Anything like our Lost City?”
“Not many, I don’t think,” said Will. “But there’s this place in the middle of Turkey, where, like, twenty-thousand people lived underground. Like, for centuries, until recently. But you can visit them and see the chapels and schools and stables. And other rooms.”
“Twenty-thousand?” said Demetrius. “Fascinating.” He sounded anything but fascinated. “I’m sure you must miss the open sky. And I’m sorry if this fucking place feels like a fucking prison.”
Will took a deep breath. “I miss being outdoors. I really miss bike riding. But even if I had a bike here, I couldn’t ride it in the desert.
“What’s a ‘bike’?” asked the priest.
Will stopped to think how “bike” had rolled off his tongue in the alien language. It had come out as an invented word. “It’s a thing you ride with two wheels. It has pedals. And there are brakes -”
“I see,” said Demetrius, cutting him off.
“I’ve gotten used to the underground,” said Will. “It’s not so bad.”
“Well, you don’t have much choice. So there’s no sense complaining.”
“I wasn’t com -”
“And if our food still upsets your bowels, you’ll just have to choke that down too.”
Will didn’t know how to react to this. He waited as the priest started pacing, clearly troubled by something. Demetrius went to the edge of the pyramid again and stood looking out, with his hands on his hips. He stood like that for a long time.
“Demetrius?” said Will. “Is something bothering you?”
The priest turned to face Will again, sighing. “I want to show you something.” He removed a parchment from his tunic. “This is a letter written to Keldor.”
Keldor. The chief mage before Auriga. He had vanished mysteriously seven months ago and still hadn’t been found. He was presumed dead.
Demetrius continued: “It’s from one of the mages in our stronghold. His name was Sinbar. This letter from Sinbar was never sent. He died from poisoning, probably by Zargonites. About a month before Keldor disappeared. We found the letter just a few days ago.” He held it out to Will. “Read it. I’d like your opinion of it.”
Will took the parchment, flabbergasted that Demetrius was bringing him in on something like this. The handwriting on it was sloppy but legible:
Get thy uppity arse down here, soon’s you’re able. Things be not as they seemed. The Eye and Hand be on the Isle, not the Catacombs. At Vark’s Ring, if thee can believe it.
Regards to the Magi, and a pox on Jess if she be refusin to spread herself for thee.
He read it multiple times, struggling through the archaic grammar. “The Isle” almost certainly had to be the Isle of Death – the only island in the city, and which every Cynidicean refused to set foot on. “Vark’s Ring” was apparently a site on the Isle. “The Eye and Hand” were – what? Magic artifacts of some kind? The last sentence made no sense to him. Jess was one of the Magi in the temple. Her bunk was two beds down from the one he’d slept in before being gifted with his private room. She was a nice person and Will liked her. He took a dim view of anyone calling down disease on her.
“The last bit’s not important,” said Demetrius, as if reading his mind. “It’s the stuff before.”
Will looked up. “I don’t understand most of this. What’s the Eye and Hand that are supposed to be on the island? What’s Vark’s Ring?”
“The Eye and Hand of Gaius,” said Demetrius. “Two artifacts that the cults would kill for. Some say they’re cursed, but that the powers they grant are so great as to make the curses worth it. This letter implies that Sinbar discovered their location. Up until now it’s been assumed that the Eye and Hand were somewhere deep in the Catacombs. The lich Gaius is entombed down there, but anyone who goes too deeply into the Catacombs never comes out again. Vark’s Ring is the ring of stone arches at the isle’s center.”
“Aren’t there a lot of undead on the island?” asked Will. In Mike’s game, he, Lucas, and Dustin hadn’t gone out to the isle, but they’d heard the rumors.
“Yes,” said the priest. “But no one knows what kind. The island is only eighty feet across, so gods only know where all the undead rest. Probably in underground caves. When the Cynidiceans first built the Lost City, they dug up all the dead bodies in the areas they were clearing out, burned them, and reburied the ashes on the island. Not long after came the undead, and no one is really sure how, except that the ashes must have had something to do with it.”
“And so the Eye and Hand are at this ring of stone arches, surrounded by undead?”
“It would appear,” said Demetrius. “If this letter can be trusted.”
Dustin’s face took on a vexed expression. “I don’t believe Sinbar wrote this letter.”
“So am I,” said Demetrius.
“Well… how many people talk like this? In my three months here, I’ve never heard anyone speak with ‘thee’s and ‘thy’s’.”
“Oh, it sounds perfectly like Sinbar. He was raised to speak that way by his deranged mother.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“It’s not Sinbar’s handwriting. One of our people found this letter in the corner of the trash storage. Which means that it’s been there since Sinbar disappeared – eight or nine months ago. Which I find hard to believe. The letter was given to Raen and he called in me and Shira to discuss it. Even aside from the astonishing revelation about the Eye and Hand, it seemed fishy to me.”
“You said Sinbar died from poisoning? From Zargonites?”
“Zargonites is our best guess. I was dead during this time, of course, so I had no idea what was going on. When I was dead, Sinbar and two other people in the stronghold were poisoned by a blackface mushroom that somehow got in the food supply. Everyone presumed the Zargonites were behind it. It’s a common tactic of theirs.”
“When did Keldor disappear?” asked Will.
“About a month after the poisoning incident. This letter would seem to confirm what Auriga told me on your first day here: that Keldor was after something in the Catacombs.”
“The Eye and Hand of Gaius,” said Will.
“Which I also don’t buy,” said the priest. “Keldor wasn’t nearly experienced enough – or stupid enough – to go after artifacts like that on his own, or with someone like Sinbar. So I told Raen to fetch one of the mages who had worked closely with Sinbar, copying scrolls. We showed him the letter.”
“Forged?” asked Will.
Demetrius nodded. “The mage swore up and down this wasn’t Sinbar’s handwriting. So unless Sinbar was possessed, he didn’t write this letter.”
“I’m still lost. What kind of opinion do you want from me?”
“You’ve played scenarios like this, back home in your games. You’re a prodigy in our world, being showered with special privileges. Start earning them. I’m asking for your counsel.”
Start earning them? That wasn’t fair. “Demetrius… I don’t know what to say. If Sinbar didn’t write the letter, then you’re saying it was planted?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“How could I guess who did that?”
“I’m not asking you to identify the forger. We’re not going to solve this mystery standing up here today. I’m asking you what should be done with what we know.”
“Have you or Raen told Auriga about this?” asked Will.
“Not yet. But I’ll be doing that as soon as we finish our talk.”
“Well… do you think he wrote the letter?”
“It crossed my mind,” said Demetrius. “But I find it hard to believe. If he’s the forger it would mean that he’s playing a very deep game within the Magi community.”
“That’s… possible,” said Will. Or was it? Auriga was mean and petty, but this letter involved murder, disappearing acts, and conspiracies.
“I’ve suspected his involvement in Keldor’s disappearance ever since I returned to life in Dustin’s body.”
“Well, if that’s true…” said Will. Come on, think. “Then Auriga was after Keldor’s position as chief mage. Keldor had to be removed. Keldor was never interested in any magic artifacts or a suicide mission into the Catacombs.”
Demetrius kept nodding. “Go on.”
“Keldor was just… in the way.” Blocking Auriga’s climb to power. “Auriga would never have become chief mage with Keldor holding the title.”
“Good. Which means?”
“Which means what?” asked Will.
“If Keldor never had any sights on the Eye and Hand of Gaius, then what does that say about Sinbar?’
“He didn’t either,” said Will. “They were never working together on some mission like that.”
“And yet he’s no longer around either.”
“But he was poisoned. And not just him, but two others. Were they mages too?”
“One of them,” said the priest. “The other was a citizen. They all ate the same product – a dried fruit – that had been laced with the blackface mushroom.”
“That’s different from Keldor. You never even found his body. Do you think Auriga was behind the poisoning incident?”
“If he was – and/or if he’s the forger of this letter – then, as I said, he would be playing a very deep game.”
Will was straining to keep up. “Someone wants the Magi to think that the Eye and Hand of Gaius are at the island.”
“Even though they’re not.”
“Why do you say that?” asked the priest.
“We just determined it.”
“No, we determined that Keldor and Sinbar had no interest or involvement in them. So someone is now using Keldor and Sinbar – who are conveniently dead – to wave the Eye and Hand under our noses. Maybe it is smoke; maybe it’s bullshit; maybe it’s true. What we know is that the forger wants the Magi to think they are there.”
Will felt a chill go through him. “So it’s a trap. Whether or not the artifacts are really there.”
Demetrius smiled. “Someone either desperately wants the Magi to retrieve these items, or someone – equally desperately – wants to send the Magi on a suicide errand.”
Will shook his head. “I can’t offer much beyond that.”
“Nor can I. But I wanted to bounce this off you before bringing the matter to Auriga, which is what Raen sent me here for. You spend more time with Auriga than anyone. What does your gut say? About him being the forger – or at least being the one who orchestrated the forging of this letter?”
Will remembered his fall two days ago. His muscles failing. His feet out of step. His hands shaking. The wall flashing by. His rescue – and his rescuer’s sneer.
Jesus, he’s a monster.
Sweat broke out over Will’s skin. “I’d say,” he answered slowly, “that anything is possible with Auriga.”
“Thank you. I take your opinion seriously. And now the difficult task lies before me, when we go back and I talk to him.”
“So why tell him?” asked Will.
“He’s the Chief Mage! The second in command of our community. Raen leads the stronghold, and Auriga leads the temple. When Raen makes a decision like this, Auriga has to be involved.”
“What decision?” asked Will, fearing the answer.
“We’re going to the Isle. To get the Eye and Hand – if they’re there.”
“You’re going to walk into the trap?”
“No choice,” said Demetrius. “Raen, Shira, and I agreed. If we can get the Eye and Hand of Gaius, the Magi could tip the balance of power. The Zargonites wouldn’t rest so easy anymore.”
A part of Will felt excited. This was a classic D&D quest; a hunt for legendary artifacts. The other part said this mission was crazy. “What exactly do the Eye and Hand of Gaius do?”
“No one knows exactly,” said Demetrius. “In order to be used, they have to replace a missing eye or hand on a person’s body. And it has to be two different people. If one person were to bind himself to both the Eye and Hand, he would die instantly – the power would be unendurable. And once someone is bound to the Eye or Hand, it’s for life. They’re supposed to be impossible to remove without killing the person.”
Will was aghast. “You’re saying that you need to rip out one of your eyes or chop off one of your hands to use these things?”
The priest smiled grimly. “The price of power.”
“But what do they do?”
“The Eye is supposed to grant visions of near omniscience. And the ability to kill creatures just by looking at them.”
“The Hand is supposed to make a warrior nearly invincible.”
The priest nodded. “So you understand the Magi’s interest. If we had the Eye and Hand of Gaius, the Zargonites would have cause to fear us. So would Zargon himself.”
“Maybe,” said Will, feeling skeptical. “But there are no warriors in the Usamigaran community. Who would wield the Hand?”
“Well, yeah. I’ve been thinking about that.”
“I don’t know, Demetrius. In our D&D games, if there was even a chance something was cursed, I didn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.”
“This is no game, Will. We’re fighting for our survival. I’m aware of the risks, as are Raen and Shira. We didn’t decide this lightly.”
“Well, I hope it goes well for you. Who would be the ones to go on this quest?”
“That’s what I need to discuss with Auriga.”
“Do you think he’ll volunteer himself?”
The cleric smiled. “If he did, that would, at the very least, mean that he believes the artifacts are on the Isle. But I don’t see him agreeing to put himself in that kind of danger.”
Will nodded. He looked out over the ruins and blinding sand. The heat was becoming brutal. It had to be over a hundred degrees. He didn’t care. Being outside was a rare treat.
“So tell me, Spider Child,” said Demetrius, changing the subject, “what new spells are you learning?”
They stayed and talked that way for a few minutes more. Finally the heat was too much, and they started to go back. Demetrius was on top of the ladder inside the statue when Will thought of something.
The priest paused on the rung, looking at him.
“Was Keldor really ‘uppity’? The letter called him that.”
Demetrius laughed. “Funny how you ask. He sure as hell was. Keldor could be mighty condescending. But he was a very good man. Why?”
“I don’t know,” said Will. “But it seems like a small detail that makes the letter sound genuine. You know, like it’s really from Sinbar.”
“That’s very perceptive of you. But for that very reason, it’s the kind of detail a good forger would want to include. To make it look real. That’s why he also included the extraneous bit about getting laid.”
“Come on. You need to get back to your studies. And I have a hard afternoon ahead of me.”
He went down the ladder, and Will followed.
Next Chapter: Maiden of Madarua
(Previous Chapter: Brothers of Gorm)