Halls of Dead
"So… This is the Halls of Dead?"
Hayleigh's voice was full of confusion and doubt, as they stood before an old arch entry that was almost buried in a mountain of sand. One could see that the carving and the sculptures on the pillars were once great and magnificent; but unfortunately had faded, slowly eroded by the wind of the desert throughout the last two hundred and fifty years, making the pictures and letters difficult to even identify. However, the symbols meaning "Dead" were still clear enough for Nathaniel to be sure of the place, and the fact the strange building in the middle of desert had a complicated lock upon its door way gave away the importance of itself.
He turned his head and watched Hayleigh tilting her head up, trying to read the illegible writings upon the stones at the top of the archway. "Were you expecting something different?" He laughed at how adorable and simple she looked, like a small child trying to figure out the clouds, "It's not like this is a public and common tourist spot. Most people are scared of walking skeletons and mummies."
She gently folded her eyebrows, while still trying to read the carvings. Nathaniel figured she might understand the ancient language that was once upon the stones, "I know that, it's just… I thought it would be grander than this. I mean, it has a pretty grand name, don't you think? 'Halls of Dead'?"
"I just think it has a pretty horrible name." Nathaniel shrugged, which attracted a giggle at his answer, "To enter you need solve this puzzle. I think." He pointed towards the square carvings on what looked like the door. It appeared to be a slide puzzle, with space for nine pieces but with only eight pieces available and each piece had some sort of pattern on the surface, suggesting one must slide the pieces until the patterns matched up.
He then looked at her hoping that she was solving it, but she was already looking at him, "What? Why do I have to solve this puzzle?" She said, while putting on an innocent and clueless face, which Nathaniel was sure to be on purpose, "It's not my fault that the ancient Horadrim liked to make things really difficult for everyone."
"Well, you are a sorcereress, aren't you meant to be smarter than most people?" He replied, as he was not willing to lose this mind battle, "And it is you who need to enter the hall. Besides, from what I know of you, if only it was fair, I'd bet my life against yours that you can solve it faster than I can."
He heard Hayleigh make a "tsk" noise. I was right, for once, even if it about her being smarter than me. As Nathaniel celebrated a little in his mind, the girl stared at the puzzle for not more than a minute before saying, "Twenty one moves. It should show a symbol that will tell us which stairs to follow. I did my brain work, now it's your turn to use your muscles."
"Hang on, stairs? You didn't mention that earlier." Somehow Nathaniel could not believe that was his first reaction to her sentence, as the girl just solved the complicated puzzle within seconds. "Where do these stairs leads to? And where would the cube be?" If he remembered correctly, before when she was showing him the documents from Deckard Cain, it involved only one map and some translations of ancient languages which Nathaniel could only half read.
"Oh, did I not mention it before? My apologies." She said, while instructing him the moves to solve the slide puzzle, which kept him busy from commenting on her sarcasm, "The first level has seven different stairs but only one leads to level below; the second level has seven different pathways but only one leads to the next stairway. If the wrong stairs or path was taken, each one leads to a deadly trap. Lucky for us, all we need to do is follow the symbol when you completed this puzzle."
"Pretty sure you left that detail out." Nathaniel looked back at her with irritation. Not only did she not explain that earlier, she also seemed to enjoy watching him doing the heavy work. "Remind me next time that I have to ask for important details."
Hayleigh put on her classic sarcastic smile, which Nathaniel both hated and adored at the same time, "C'mon, they were unnecessary details; you wouldn't need to know if you follow my instructions correctly without being an idiot." And before Nathaniel could even reply to that, she continued in a patronising tone, "The cube, on the other hand, is located all the way down on level three, the most complicated level of all in terms of the maze, through one of the seven different doors. But you don't need to worry, as we have a map for it. Okay?"
The slide puzzle was surprisingly heavy in Nathaniel's mind; perhaps it was the dust and the sand within the cracks that created more friction, but the stones did not look half as heavy as they felt when he was moving them across each other. They sure like to make it really difficult, the bloody Horadrim, even if Nathaniel understood their purpose he could not help but curse the mages that designed it.
"I just noticed, those stones on the puzzle are made of volcanic rock that must have cooled quickly from hot magma, but judging from the patterns of the material such rock had to come from the snowy mountains up north." While Nathaniel was sweating from labourious work, Hayleigh seemed to be fascinated, "It is clever because it will not fade away easy from the dry wind and sand, like the ones that made the pillars; but not only is it rare, it is also hard to imagine how difficult it must have been to carry all these rocks this far. Do you not think it's interesting?"
"Honestly?" Nathaniel started to wonder what her mind was made of; it seemed to work fast, but at times it would jump randomly which confused him, not to mention hugely irritating. "I really don't care. All I care is that this material here, rare is it? It is also very difficult to move."
Hayleigh gave him another of her classic "alright, suit yourself" looks: raised eyebrows, moved eye and the pout of contempt. If Nathaniel was not already too busy and tired from moving the pieces of the puzzle, he would probably had to restrain himself from strangling her; but as it was, he only had one last move to do.
As he completed the puzzle, a symbol that looked similar to the rune "Tal" appeared. Before they both said anything, the puzzle started to move by itself, causing them to step back as natural reaction. The pieces mixed themselves up, leaving an empty gap in the middle: but unlike before, now the gap was hollow, and the door started to part. Dust and sand fell from the roof, and a dark passage with stairs going downwards appeared on the other side of the door.
As the door opened, it sucked wind from behind them; one could see that the door had been not opened in a long time. The stairs were covered with a thick layer of dust, and they were complete and well preserved unlike the sculptures outside. One thing Nathaniel noticed was the slightly sour and unbearable smell that started to rise from the darkness, which he was sure the girl beside him had too as he heard her whisper with a horrified voice, "What on Earth is that awful smell?"
"Mummies. Corpse. Dead stuff?" He turned to her, "What did you expect? They are not known to clean themselves up and place flowers around while waiting for visitors to arrive." As he spoke he took out a torch and held it front of her.
She rolled her eye and created fire for him, "You're welcome, cheeky guy." She sighed and gently stumped her wand; the big jewel on the top of her staff started to glow with a soft light, and that was the first time Nathaniel noticed the jewel was the centre of an eye shaped pattern. She sighed again, "I think we have a higher chance of dying due to suffocation than being killed by mummies."
Nathaniel thought as the man of the couple he should take the first step down. As his foot carefully landed on the step, it almost sank into the thick layer of dust; if they move too fast, the dust could end up in their lungs, which would only be bad. "I expect you to have remembered what I told you about killing the undead?" He said and he heard his voice echoed in the darkness.
"You said quite a lot, and it was windy so I didn't hear all of it; but I think the key is to cut off their heads, right?" Nathaniel heard the heels of her boots hitting the stones that made the stairs. He was not sure how long the stairs are, but it felt like it was going on forever into oblivion.
"It's best to freeze them then shatter their body, that way they cannot reform themselves. As for the mummies, watch out for the poisonous smoke as they fall; it is only dangerous when such gas is concentrated and fresh, as it neutralises quite quickly with air. But if it gets inside your body, it will stay in your bloodstream and-"
"I think we don't need to worry about the poison department, as my blood is probably more poisonous than theirs." She interrupted him with a chuckle, "By the way, do mummies burn well? Or should I use lightening to destroy them? I'm not very good with swords and chopping off things."
Finally the stairs ended and they arrived in a dark corridor. Apart from the smell, there was nothing at all; completely silent except the noise of their breath and the echoes of their steps in the darkness. Because they were deep below the ground, the place was cold but without any flow of air. The name did it justice, as for here there was no sense of life in the slightest in the place. "I guess… We will find out." Nathaniel said slowly as his instinct told him to worry, which was never a good feeling.
As he hesitated, Hayleigh walked past him and started to lead, "Let's not waste anymore time now, come on." She said lively without nerves, as if she was relaxed. She probably is relaxed. I guess she has been through places that were even more horrific, Nathaniel wondered how she did not display any hint of fear, but seriously, is she not scared of death?
It was not long before they met the first set of stairs. Like before, the light only could shine on the first few steps, but where they lead was pitch black; they felt a weak wind coming from below, and it was filled with coldness and horror. Upon the arch of the entrance, there was a mark. "Is it too much to ask for the first stairs to be the right one? I guess I was a fool to believe the Horadrims would be that nice to us." Nathaniel heard Hayleigh sighed, "Strange, Deckard Cain seemed like a good man. Why couldn't the original Horadrims like that?"
"Maybe Deckard Cain is secretly evil." Nathaniel looked around with the torch, checking if there was anything behind them or any traps around, "He just fooled you with his white beard and his low, hoarse voice. He told you that you need a key to get to Tal Rasha's tomb, but he actually knew the secret backdoor and just doesn't want to share, because he thinks we should work for it."
He then felt an odd stare from Hayleigh, "…I don't even know how to reply to that one; it's that weird of an idea to say." She said with a tone that expressed her confusion while moving forward, "Just… Huh? How did you even come up with that?"
Nathaniel shrugged behind her, "Maybe I've spent too much time with you it's making me a psycho too." He then heard her giggle, which he was glad about as there was a slight chance that she might have reacted with unhappiness.
But her giggle stopped very soon, along with her footsteps. She moved back slightly due to instinct, but only to back into Nathaniel's arms. He was a bit surprised, as he had not felt fear from her; it was almost if this was her natural reaction and that she used to seek protection from someone else. Perhaps it was her brother, he thought, she talks about him a lot, and consider she mentioned he was older. It makes perfect sense.
Nathaniel soon realised that this was not a good time to start wondering again, as there were several mummies moving towards them slowly. They were thin and dry as time had eroded and drained all the flesh and liquid that was once in their bodies; the bandages that were wrapped around their figures were brittle and blackened, weakened by age. Though they moved tardily because of the restrictions of movements that the bandages created, their desperate hunger and their murderous desire were not easy to escape.
From what they could see from the sources of light, there were eight of them, but Nathaniel was sure that there are a few more at the back hidden in the darkness, where the light could not reach. "Alright, decapitate, and watch out for the smoke from their bodies." He said to her, but in some ways he was also telling himself as it had been a long time since he last faced them, "They move slow, but they are likely to accelerate when they are close and ready to attack. So just-"
Before he could finish his sentence, Hayleigh had already cast multiple fireballs targeting the ones further away, causing them to combust and light the surroundings while the flames burnt down whatever was left of their bodies. "I think they burn pretty well, wouldn't you say?" She asked, while taking a few more steps back, "I will need time to cast spells and to recast as I need to re-concentrate. So, seeing this is a corridor, the best strategy is that you do your stuff with your sword and shield at front to protect me, while I cover you from behind and from long distance, agree?"
He was again shocked at the fact she considered strategies for both, instead of letting them fight individually like last time with the Saber Cats. But considering the availability of space and their strengths, such strategies were indeed the best and the quickest method to end the battle. "Have you fought with a swordsman before?" He asked, while drawing the Atlantean from its scabbard. The fact she said immediately "the best strategy" meant that she knew plenty, which suggested it was very likely she had experienced a similar style of combat.
"Is it just me, or you are getting smarter? Ah, maybe you've spent so much time with me already it's making you brighter." She said, while casted a frozen orb into the enemies. The orb exploded and froze whatever its fragments hit; making it much easier for Nathaniel to slice off their heads as their motions were temporarily disabled due to parts of their bodies being covered with ice. "My brother was a swordsman, though he wielded another sword with his left hand instead of holding a shield."
With the Atlantean's incredible sharpness, even ice would not shatter when the blade cut through it with ease. Ice also ensured that as they fall, the poisonous gas trapped within their bodies would not be released before it melts, and judging from the temperature of this dark hall it should take a while. "That makes sense. Was your brother as good as me?" Nathaniel said as he took down another two mummies with one move. As he finished the ones that were disabled through Hayleigh's magic, it gave her enough time to repeat the same spell to the next batch of upcoming mummies.
The pair of them working together allowed them to move relatively fast past the obstacles. "Not to brag or put you down, and with complete honesty, my brother was better than you." She said as she followed his steps but maintaining the distance, "I don't know if you know or heard of that old man, but apparently he was quite famous in the Knights of Westmarch. Sheldon Fydidrin?"
"You mean the Great Champion Sheldon Fydidrin of Westmarch? Are you kidding me? Not only have I heard of him, I was required to learn his heroic success and the wisdom within his strategies. He was one of the best swordsmen of the century! Seriously?" Nathaniel nearly choked when he heard the name; he knew that she grew up in a residential village that must be filled with heroes and the elite, but never did he thought that she grew up surrounded by real-life legends, "Sheldon Fydidrin trained your brother? I can't believe this."
She casted another fireball and shot it far so they could see further, "Wisdom? The old man was always talking about how he just improvised and never really thought that much. 'Always depend on your instinct,' he kept telling us, 'that is the greatest wisdom of all and is what will save your arse.' Which I bet was not what you read in your textbook." She seemed to be unimpressed with Nathaniel's admiration towards the great champion, "Anyway, he was one of my brother's teachers, but my brother beat him at a duel when my brother was eleven. In his defence, he was old… Like sixty, maybe? Can't really remember, I was seven then."
While Nathaniel vomited a little in his mind, he also saw the next set of stairs and the symbol upon its archway. Fortunately it was the stairs they were looking for, which surprised him slightly as he thought the Ancient Horadrim would torture them further. He gave a thumb up to signal the girl that was behind him, who then threw another frozen orb to freeze the mummies that were further down on the other side, allowing Nathaniel to get rid of them and stop them from trailing down the stairs.
As they were walking down another long stairs that felt like it was never going to end, Nathaniel still could not believe that her brother was trained by one of the best paladin he knew, not to mention her brother was good enough to defeat him at such a young age. "This is ridiculous. Are you and your brother some sort of… Monsters?" He said with both exclamation and incomprehension, "I dare to even wonder who your teachers were… If Tal Rasha wasn't already dead, he'd be my first guess. What's your brother's name? Maybe I've read about him as well."
He then realised he never asked it before, nor had Hayleigh ever said. Within these two days that Nathaniel had known her, it was clear that she loves her brother very dearly as she mentioned him several times; but not once did she reveal his name or explain why she uses past tense when speaking about him. Judging from that, Nathaniel was more convinced that her brother had passed away, which must have hurt her so much. Perhaps he could be the reason why she wanted to be a hero, or perhaps all these heroic acts were related to her brother's death.
"I doubt it, he rarely shared his name, even with those he helped and rescued. It's how we do things when we travel, as we wanted to keep a low profile; just like you've never heard of my name before I introduced myself, even though you knew that a hero had slain Andariel." She replied a few moments after the question was asked, but Nathaniel was not sure how long she paused as he was not concentrating, "But he was truly magnificent, so perhaps you've heard about him and tales of his brilliance, but the stories and news will never have his name in it."
"Why would you want to keep a low profile if you travel to do heroic things that deserve songs and poems written about you?" Nathaniel thought before that she wanted to be a hero, and therefore disliked her immediately for it. But she was right, as the news of Andariel's death had reached them long before her arrival in Lut Gholein, but it was not until then he discovered the name of Andariel's Slayer; which also suggested that she had a different purpose to do all these dangerous quests.
While she was considering her answer, they reached the hall of the second level. Unlike the level above, this level started with seven different entrances that all went in a different direction. Upon each entrance there was a symbol, which marked the path they needed to take even if one could already feel the chill by just looking into the darkness within the corridor.
"We had our reasons, but also because a high profile means trouble." It was then Hayleigh answered his question, "From what I understand of it, fame only attracts envy and judgement that were misplaced, or creates pride and greed that could corrupt-"
She suddenly paused. It was an odd place to stop the sentence. Nathaniel turned his head to check on her; it was clearly displayed on her face that her mind was somewhere else, but wherever it was Nathaniel could see it was not a good place.
It was worrying Nathaniel, but after he called her name, she momentarily closed her eye before looking back at him with strength and focus in that dusk coloured eye of hers, "that could corrupt even the purest heart of all. It's within our nature without exception; and though I too might be tempted and degrade one day, the only thing I could do is to avoid it for as long as possible."
"Speaking like a true wise woman, or a prophet." It was strange to hear those words from her, as she was so young… not to mention she looked younger, to be this abnormally mature and realistic. Maybe it was her upbringing that made her so; after all she was an unusual case, so it would be natural for her to have such a distinctive personality. Maybe, as Nathaniel could only guess. "Was there one of those living in your village? Because I won't be surprised if there was; if anything, I'll assume you copied those words from them, which will only make me feel better about myself. Actually, don't answer; I will just assume that."
Hayleigh laughed; it was then Nathaniel realised how much it made him happy when he hears her laughter. "You are funny, which is surprising as you came across stubborn and boring at first… No offense."
"I think you've already offended me enough that it doesn't even matter anymore." Nathaniel quickly replied, "But I guess it's alright. I pre-judged you badly too."
"…That's nice to hear. I'm glad we're honest with each other." Hayleigh sounded though sarcastic yet also confused as if she felt unsure. She also displayed her lack of interest in such matter. She hesitated a few moments before spoking again, "I… I recognise the name Al'keen, and I recognise that shield too; your father was a stubborn man, which is why I thought you might be too."
He was not sure what he felt the moment she said the sentence; perhaps it was shock, or maybe it was emptiness. Whatever it was, it felt like a stab in the heart. It was impossible that she had met his father; however it was very likely that someone she knew well had, as for his father was though not a hero, but… infamous.
Nathaniel found himself unable to discover any word to say but to stare at Hayleigh. She looked back at him with the big eye of hers, somehow with guilt, care and respect all at the same time, "Did it not occur to you that if I can recognise The Alantean, I'd be able to identify Moser's Blessed Circle and the jewels upon it?" She said, like she had studied it in great depth off documents before, "It used to belong to the Marshal and Champion of Westmarch, Arrganiel Al'keen. The shield is made from a material that no longer exists in the world - that is so light yet incredibly strong; the jewel upon it enhances its defence against magic, and the patterns shown the legacy of Moser."
Nathaniel could not believe it never even cross his mind: when she spoke about The Alantean, the only thought Nathaniel had was that he was surprised on how sharp her eye was and the knowledge of the sword; he then assumed that perhaps she read it somewhere as for the sword was famous, as he knew the a sorcereress must be intelligent and well-educated. And when she revealed that she grew up from a residential village of retired Westmarch heroes, Nathaniel only thought of envy and admiration of her fortune. Never once did he thought that her knowledge of weapons came from those knights who knew all about it, and that she would also recognise the shield he was carrying even though she identified the unique sword within a glance of its handle and its case.
She then continued with a gentle voice, but in Nathaniel's ear each word sounded like a sharp needle scratching iron. "You join the Order of Zakarum of Kurast instead of Westmarch because not many people there would recognise the name; you knew about the colour of the honey in Westmarch because you lived there as a child, until your mother took you to Lut Gholein after your father's execution-"
"Enough!" He finally could not bear it anymore; he did not know much about his father as for his father died when Nathaniel was only seven. Growing up all Nathaniel had heard of his father was the shameful thing he had done, the mistake he made due to his stubbornness which led to many deaths and his execution for disobeying a direct order; which resulted with the exile of his family from Westmarch. "I don't need you to remind me of him, or of who he was. I am nothing like my father!"
He said with aggression, as it was what he tried to prove since the day he saw his father's head landed on the floor, and the true reason he wanted to become a hero: to bring glory to the family and cover the shame of the name. Such ambition, however, led to the death of his sister. Nathaniel hated his father, and he hated whenever someone mentions his father. And he hated the fact that this hatred cost him the lives of his family.
"No, wait, Nate, that's not what I'm trying to-"
Before Hayleigh could finish her sentence, Nathaniel's anger had filled his mind. He put all the frustration and rage into his fist, and aimed at the wall beside him. This cause the brick to immerse into the wall, and immediately after there was a series of tickling noise, which travelled all the way down the corridor. Next thing they know, within the echoes, several skeletons had fell from the ceilings, some from the wall; each carries a weapon of some sort and a sense of unfriendliness as they walk towards the pair with a fast pace.
Nathaniel felt Hayleigh's stare upon himself, but he could only blame himself for triggering the trap. "This is just great. I officially hate the Horadrims." He mumbled, as he curses himself and whatever he could think of that was evil. But no curse or regret can save them now, so he sighed quietly and prepare for battle.
Like before, Hayleigh moved behind him with a few step back and threw a fireball into the enemies; but unlike the last time, the fire did not affect the skeletons as they walk straight through it without trouble or damage. "Okay, they don't burn so well." She laughed nervously and her words shook slightly, "Nate, how do I kill skeletons again?"
"We will need to shatter them before they will burn, as only then is the magic which holds them together disabled." Maybe it was the adrenaline from the sudden danger, or the fact that for the first time he felt needed by Hayleigh, Nathaniel had lost all the anger within his heart and he had forgotten his thoughts from moments ago. He said calmly, "If you freeze them, I can shatter the ice with the sword still in the scabbard and my shield. Though do it quickly, their movements are much faster than the mummies as they were once soldiers."
Hayleigh immediately fired a frozen orb without another word. However, even with parts of their bodies frozen, some skeletons were still able to move with a slower speed instead of being disabled like they desired. Nathaniel could not complain, as he knew that those skeletons were far more deadly than the mummies, and that the Ancient Horadrims were never going to make things easy.
"You said you know lightening magic before," After smashing one or two skeletons that were closer to them, it reminded Nathaniel of her words earlier as she entered the Halls of Dead, "how good is your lightening skill?"
"Erm, I'd say it's alright. Why, would that work on skeletons?" Hayleigh answered with curiosity, but Nathaniel could feel that she was desperate to gain confidence again after her fire magic had failed to stop the enemy approaching.
"What do you mean by 'alright'?" As much as Nathaniel could understand that one cannot simply measure the ability of magical skills, but such a vague answer did not really satisfy him at all, "It will work on them, as lightening will scatter their bones and break down their structure. Are you good enough to not hit me?"
Hayleigh cast another frozen orb to aid Nathaniel's attack, which also saved him as it froze a skeleton whose sword was already inches away from his shoulder. He then heard her say cheerfully, "You know what they say, there's only one way to find out."
"Huh? What? Wait!"
Her reply gave Nathaniel a fright, causing him to turn his head to look at the girl. But it was already too late; as his eye moved upon her stuff, it shot out a bright light that quickly moved pass him, and before he could work out what just happened, the horizontal lightening had jumped from one skeleton to the next. A second after, when the light disappeared and his vision recovered, a large number of skeletons had collapsed on the ground with their bones laid on the floor. Nathaniel was unable to tell which bit of bones belonged to what and where they were meant to be on one's body.
"Are you insane? You could've killed me!" He shouted with both irritation and relief, "And next time if anyone ask you about your lightening skills, just answer 'good' because I am certain that chain lightening is a difficult spell to master!"
Hayleigh almost fell as her knees were so weak, but she used her staff to keep her standing and she rested to regain her energy, "You already knew I'm insane; pretty sure you've repeated it several times already." She said with a tired smile; obviously such powerful magic must have drained her energy fast, which Nathaniel understood. "Well at least it worked. Besides, I was never going to hit you; just playing with you, that's all."
What he did not understand was her last few words. "Just playing with me? Can you not see these skeletons with swords and knives or are they just all part of my imagination?" He said while laughing a little because of her joke that made him both mad and delighted.
She had yet to catch her breath, "If I say the latter, would you believe it?"
"No. You know why?BECAUSE THEY'RE ACTUALLY ATTACKING US."
He liked the way Hayleigh could still make jokes even when danger was near, to cover her nerves maybe, or to cheer him up; and the influence she had over him, that could change him from one mood to another within seconds. Two days ago he was a cynical man who had such pessimistic views, it made him give up on the world and its hope; now he found himself a different man, who wanted to be needed, and who wanted to figure out this mysterious girl.
"I am glad you got my humour there." Though Hayleigh looked yet to recover fully, she seemed well enough to cast once again as another frozen orb flew past Nathaniel and slowed the motion of the upcoming force. The chain lightening was powerful enough to have destroyed most of the skeleton army and the orbs slowed the rest, making it easy for Nathaniel to defeat the last few and dispose of the danger.
Hayleigh quickly walked towards him, passing and stepping on the bones of those that once threatened them. Nathaniel was surprised at how relaxed she was when she did so, as for most people the idea itself could make one feel sick with disgust. "I can see the stairs down now," She then said, "it's not far. Let's just try not to trigger anymore traps for the rest of… a hundred steps."
"Wait," He stopped her quickly by grabbing her arm, which is when he realised just how thin it was as it felt like holding nothing at all, and the fact his fingers would contact his thumb before even fully touching her smooth but cold skin. "You need to set those bones on fire as it's the only thing that could destroy them, and the only way to ensure they don't wake again one day."
It was easy for her; the fire brought them warmth but it quickly died as the shattered bones were not much to burn. "To be honest, who will be here even if they wake again?" She moved on without looking back, "As I'm not willing to visit this place again once our purpose is done here."
"I don't know, maybe for when we walk back after we are done here?" Nathaniel said sarcastically, which he was then surprised about as he could not believe he had caught her sense of humour already.
And it seemed that Hayleigh noticed that too, "I thought you hated my sarcasm?" She said with a smile, "Though you shouldn't blame me; blame those 'heroic knights' that were cynical because of old age."
As she spoke they reached the stairs. Like the two previous ones, this one also looked like it had no end and was filled with nothing but creeping darkness. "It's contagious." Nathaniel said honestly, "If getting used to it means becoming it then let it be, as I have to take you to Sand Maggot's Lair and Vipers Claw's Temple before I have a chance to retire from the role of your guide."
"True. I bet you can't wait." She simply said, but this time Nathaniel was not sure if it was sarcastic or not; since that was the case, he decided not to reply to avoid misunderstanding. After a few more steps down into this endless stair case, she spoke again, "I'm sorry to have angered you earlier; it was neither my intention nor my wish. I just thought that I should explain why I had the wrong ideas about you at the start, and I was hoping you could forgive me for such foolish and horrible prejudice." She then laughed with irony, "Which, I guess didn't go so well…"
Her words stunned Nathaniel again, for he had forgotten all about that conversation before she brought it up; and it did not occur to him at the time that she was explaining to apologise, because for the past eighteen years he was ashamed of his father's action, which made him sensitive about the matter. He was afraid that people would look down on him based on his father's infamous story, and he did not want Hayleigh of all people to despise him for it.
"I know that you might not want to hear this, but please listen before you get angry again." She said quickly so he could not interrupt, though he did not want to anyway, "I have read of his tale, that he was great and glorious – otherwise how could he have received that shield in the first place? However, from what I've understand of him and what I've known of you, I think you should know that I honestly believe-"
Hayleigh paused a few moments, before saying with softness and compassion, "You are like him, Nate, but you are better than him. Please always remember that, for if ever anyone would look down on you, then they are just simply foolish like I was."
Those words, those then words; you are like him, Nate, but you are better than him. Those words were the dearest thing anyone had ever said to him, and perhaps the words he had always wanted to hear the most. He felt like Hayleigh knew that too, as he felt she had saw through his heart; but her voice was so sincere and honest, letting Nathaniel truly believe that she spoke from her heart.
"Did…" He felt his eye water slightly, but he held it in by saying, "Did Fara tell you to say this? Because it is unlike you to compliment me."
He heard her laugh gently, "I may be cynical and sarcastic, but like I said yesterday: I have a heart too." She held her stuff a little higher as they had reached the level below, which was also the final level, "I just thought the carrier of that beautiful shield should not be ashamed of its previous owner. It is the 'blessed circle' after all, and you can't enjoy your blessing with hatred in your heart. At least that is what I've heard." She then added, "Though I do hope you accept my apology soon, as it will be quite awkward for the rest of the journey if you keep being angry at me."
Nathaniel subtly dried his eyes while she was taking out the map of the maze from her bag. "To tell the truth, the fact you would admit that you were foolish is enough for me. I may hold that against you for a while, in case you verbally abuse me again." He helped her unroll the map and held it up to look, "Speaking of surnames, you haven't told me yours?" As he was about to think of something to say about it, he realised he did not remember it as she had never told him.
Hayleigh moved her eye from the map onto his face, "I don't have one, because no one knew anything of our parents or where we came from. But they gave us one anyway; maybe to remember the man that brought us there, or hope that we'd grow up to be angelic and good." She said, with each word sounding so clear, "Dikoriel, after the Angel of Trust, who was thought to be the kindest angel of all."
"Hayleigh Dikoriel? It's a nice sounding name."
"Thanks, but it is not often I use it." Hayleigh said, while putting away the map, "Not only is it unimportant, it is also not my true surname. I prefer to remain just Hayleigh, as that's the true name I have been carrying since I can remember."
They started walking into the maze, "I guess it's more important to those that lived in your village, as their names have history and will carry down a legacy." Nathaniel said, "Was it just old people living there? You've yet to mention anyone but old ones… Or should I say, aged heroes."
Her eyebrows momentarily twitched, but it was so fast Nathaniel was not sure if it was just his imagination. "Yeah, pretty much. There were only three of us growing up, all of us orphans. Apparently the village was great to hide orphans, for example, the guy who was…" She said, though looking like she was reluctant to continue, "He, erm, he was an Antiloni."
That name was familiar to Nathaniel; actually, familiar was an understatement, "Antiloni? The great archer family of Westmarch that was found mysteriously and brutally murdered overnight? I thought there were no survivors and even infants and children were heartlessly killed." It was a big event in the history Nathaniel had to study: the House of Antiloni was very well respected for they had many heroes from the family throughout history; but even now, the motive and murderers responsible for this massacre that happened twenty years ago were never discovered.
"There was only one, and he was adopted by a friend of the family that lived in the village, to hide him and shield him from whoever that might be after him. He was only a year younger than my brother, so growing up we were very close." She said with a smile, but Nathaniel was not sure if the sadness within it was natural or something else, "He was a great archer, of course, it ran in his blood; but he did not want to seek revenge even after the elders told him the tragedy of his family, because he didn't want to live for rage and hatred. In fact, he was quite a comedian; though if you're not used to my sarcasm, you would definitely not get his sense of humour."
Again Nathaniel picked up the fact she used past tense, like she did when talking about her brother. But while he was deciding whether to say anything about it or not, they had reached a stone door with the mark they're looking for. "Well, this is the place." He said while holding up his torch to reveal more of the door. Though it looked sealed with no cracks between the door and the wall, Nathaniel recognised the method to open such entrance through its structure and design, "The door was closed through magic, but it should open once we push the middle brick with the symbol on it-"
"Wait!" Just as Nathaniel's hand touched the square brick, Hayleigh quickly stopped him with a yell, which made him jump slightly, and echoed in the darkness surrounding them. "The script said the cube is guarded by an army of the undead, so we should probably step back before we open it."
Nathaniel took out his sword while looked at her with irritation, "Please could you tell me those important details before we enter a place next time? So at least I would have some idea of what's going on."
Hayleigh replied with her eyebrows raised, "I just did, didn't I?"
I'll never win, will I? Nathaniel sighed and pushed the brick, and the door slowly slid upwards as it opened. But before Nathaniel could see what was inside the room, arrows already flew towards him and he only blocked them with his shield through natural reaction. However, due to the size of his shield, he was unable to cover all parts of his body, therefore though none had hit him, a few cut him as they flew past with one that was so close to his head that it cut his cheek.
As the wound on his face started to drip blood, he quickly stepped to the side of the door to hide from the next attack, and saw Hayleigh already on the other side which helped her escaped the previous fire of arrows. "Don't look at me like I didn't warn you." She said immediately as Nathaniel thought about it, "Were they undead archers or just a trap device?"
Even though Nathaniel did not see the attacker, he could tell by the arrows that were left on the wall across, "Definitely archers. And judging from how deep it is into that stone wall, I'm guessing really powerful skeleton archers too." If it was not for his shield being stronger than most materials, the arrows may have just gone through and killed him; this caused him to fear slightly, especially since his head only escaped by a few inches, "I'm guessing there will be other armed skeletons in there too. Did it say on the script of how big such an 'army' is?" Nathaniel could not read the ancient text on the script when he glanced at it earlier, but was not surprised that Hayleigh could.
Her eyes moved to the top right corner, showing that she was trying to recall, "I think it just said 'a few' were created to guard the secret cube. Not sure how many 'a few' was in olden day text though."
"That sounds just great. There are at least eight archers judging from the amount of arrows and their direction." He wiped the dripping blood off his chin with the back of his right glove, "So I am assuming there will be at least twice as many with melee weapons. However, I don't think I can dodge all the arrows to get inside, so any bright ideas?"
He was hoping that Hayleigh would find a suitable strategy by now, but he found her to have just staring at one of the arrows she picked up from the floor, which Nathaniel blocked and must have flown towards her, "Those arrows… They are Soldiers of Radament." He heard Hayleigh made a 'tsk' noise and sighed gently, "Likely to be immune to cold, fire and poison. My chain lightening would work, but I would need to see all the targets before casting."
"Wait a second, who or what is Radament? And how do you know that by just looking at the arrows?" Before Nathaniel started to think about how to aid her lightening magic, he was both curious and confused to the source of her knowledge.
Hayleigh glanced over him before turning her head away, "I was a close friend with the last of the Antiloni, remember? Apparently arrows are a good tool to identify enemies and their abilities." She then said, "My chain lightening can only hit up to nine targets at once, and it will take me at least ten seconds to recast the spell; so if you are right about the numbers, I will need your help to buy me some time."
"Time is easy to buy, but may I ask you how to get pass those archers first?" Nathaniel pointed at those arrows upon the wall, "I'll be honest here, I am not entirely confident in dodging all of those next time."
"No? That's a shame. I was hoping that you could." Hayleigh said sarcastically which made him smile, but luckily she did not see as she was looking at the arrow in her hand. As Nathaniel wondered, the arrow started to levitate and float in mid air approximately a few inches above her palm. "I can temporarily disable the arrows, but not for long. How long would you need?"
Even if Nathaniel had heard of the magic of telekinesis before, it was still phenomenal to see it before his own eyes; the caster could momentarily move objects with their mind, though only objects they have seen and, or touched, and the range is restricted to their sight. However, he also knew that the caster could not cast other spells during the use of telekinesis, which meant that Hayleigh would be defenceless. "Can you cast that many difficult spells continuously?" Though he was more than impressed with her abilities and powers, he expressed his concern, "Wouldn't that drain your energy ridiculously fast?"
She dropped the arrow, "I can, and it would. But I need to avoid you getting shot, so unless you have any other ideas?" Her big, pale blue eye stared intensely at him, and Nathaniel could not think of anything to say. "Thought not." She then quickly said, "Alright, this is what's going to happen. As soon as I can see the arrows I can use telekinesis to stop them and change their directions. But here is the catch: I need you to trust me, and to step in front of me when we enter, to protect me from melee soldiers which I predict will emerge from the sides."
Nathaniel nodded to the plan until he suddenly realised what she was asking him to do, "Hang on, you want me to step in front of you? What if I blocked some of your vision and you didn't stop all the arrows?"
"Then you better believe I will." She simply said, "Because the melee soldiers are likely to come from both sides, leaving the middle free for the archers. We need to work together here. As soon as I'm allowed to use telekinesis, we need to split up; seeing you're right handed, you take the left side. This will split the archers' attention which gives me an opportunity to use chain lightening; but I can't guarantee to finish all of them in one go, so I hope you can avoid one or two arrows just in case?"
Since Nathaniel could not come up with a better strategy, he had no option but to agree. Believe her, he held his breathe and raised his shield as they exchanged the look of readiness. Hayleigh lifted up her left hand and signalled one.
Nathaniel swallowed as he prepared himself to face an attack. His life would to depend on a fraction of a second.
Two. He grabbed his sword tightly, pray to it, Nathaniel remembered Fara said to him, and it will give you power when you need it most. Well then, please give me the strength and the luck now, the Atlantean.
They both turned at the same time. Immediately he could see the skeleton archers firing the arrows, and the arrows flying towards them with an incredible speed; at the same time he could see soldiers with knives and swords emerging from the sides like Hayleigh predicted.
Nathaniel swore everything happened within a second. As he blocked the first skeleton soldier with the shield on his left arm and shattered the spine of another with his sword, he saw out corner of his eye that the arrows were near. Just as he thought Hayleigh had failed to use telekinesis, the arrows changed their directions when they were only a few inches away from his face. The arrows flew directly into the crowd of skeletons approached from the right side of the room, and instantly destroyed several of them as the arrows shot through their bones. Immediately as the arrows turned, a bright shot of lightening appeared and hit the archers before they could even reach for more arrows, and the lightening jumped back towards Hayleigh to eliminate two skeleton swordsmen whose blades were close to her face.
"Still one more!"
Nathaniel heard her shout as a heads up, which allowed him to block the incoming arrow with his shield immediately. He stepped back to her side to protect her while she recovered from the delay of spell caused by its energy drain. "You sure you only need ten seconds?" He noticed her panting quite loudly, and since he could hardly hear her breath normally it raised his concern.
"Why, do you need longer than that?" As she spoke Nathaniel saw her using the end of her staff to penetrate a soldier that was before her through its spine. As the skeleton fell, she caught the sword which belonged to it with her left hand and used the blade to cut off its head. Nathaniel was impressed with her close combat skill as she looked weak and feeble, but her movements were quick and fluid like she was well trained. Maybe she is, Nathaniel thought, but seriously, is there anything she can't do?
However, he noticed something odd in her movement; it was almost like that she knew exactly what to do but did not have the strength or the power to execute perfectly, or even completely. "If I were you, I'd stop staring and stop getting distracted!" Hayleigh shouted at him before he realised a sharp blade was flying towards his neck. He dodged the attack at the very last moment, but it gave him a good opportunity, as the skeletal swordsman was wide open for his finishing move.
As he pulled out his sword, he used his shield to block another attack from his left, while he changed the sword to be held backhanded and cut through the spine and ribs of the skeleton soldier on the right; the move allowed him to use such force to spin and shatter the attacker he blocked with his shield. Conveniently, as he spun the shield knocked off another skeleton's arms and weapon, and it was more than easy to just kick the soldier on its hip bones to shatter the body.
As he turned to Hayleigh he glanced round and estimated the number of enemies that were still active, and fortunately it was enough for all to be disabled if Hayleigh were to cast another chain lightening. However, as his eyes landed on Hayleigh, he realised the girl was more tired than before and would probably need to rest for a few minutes before casting a spell, if she could cast at all.
After such thought just flashed through his mind, he saw two skeleton swordsmen were about to attack her simultaneously; and before he even thought about anything, he had already rushed up to block the attacks for her with both his shield and sword. He was surprised at his natural reaction and how quick he was, and he saw Hayleigh looking at him with the same shocked expression.
But the girl had very quick reactions; she used this moment to cast one last chain lightening and a bright bolt jumped from one skeleton to another, collapsing all the skeletons that were left in the room surrounding them and left a radiant ring around them for a second before it faded away quickly.
He heard the girl suspiring and fell to her knees due to the weakening of her legs, but Nathaniel's reaction was fast enough to catch her before she landed on the floor. "You must be exhausted." He said with both admiration and sympathy, "As to how you could have cast two chain lightening and such powerful telekinesis within a minute is beyond me, not to mention I had no idea you are skilled in melee combat. Seriously, did you spend your entire childhood years learning how to fight or something?"
Hayleigh smiled tiredly; even then she was very beautiful, and Nathaniel could not take his eyes off of her. "Pretty much. That or play board games with the old people, though sometimes we did pull pranks on each other." She said while using all of her remaining strength to stand up, getting out of his arms, "I used to be stronger, but Andariel's poison made me a lot weaker than I thought."
"Wait, you can rest for a bit first; don't force yourself. It's not like I can make fun of you, considering I have never cast three very powerful spells in a row before." Nathaniel tried to stop Hayleigh as she used her staff to support herself while moving slowly towards the chest at the end of the room.
"I recover and regain my energy fast, due to the… erm…" She did not finish her sentence, but Nathaniel thought that was because she was still out of breath. Before he realised, she was already in front of the chest which was decorated with many ancient symbols and beautiful patterns, and it was locked with a slide puzzle that was like the one at the entrance, only smaller and made of metallic material.
But, as she put her arms out to reach for the chest, suddenly the sculpture on the wall behind the chest moved with such speed that Nathaniel could not see its movement. And before he could say anything, the sculpture had bent over the chest with its two sharp blades cutting through air and landing in front of the chest, crossing where Hayleigh's hand was.
Nathaniel gasped and felt his heart stop momentarily