The Light of Hope (15.1) The Hunter

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PART 1

The sound of a mechanism engaging was faint, as was expected of a trap built by people long dead. She had one or two seconds to guess what the trap was before she was caught in it.

The Hunter recognized the scraping of a blade, it was beneath her feet. She did notice she had sunk an inch into the ground, but the floor wasn’t exactly even, it was ancient and partly eaten away by the inevitability of nature and time, but it seemed she had activated a pressure plate of some kind.

She jumped back, to the only point of certain safety, and watched as the floor suddenly opened downwards like a revolving door and, an instant later, tiny masts pushed curved blades upwards, and the blades were dancing for good measure.

“Hm.” The Hunter walked around the trap.

The corridor was large enough to fit four of her, even if one of the walls was broken by trees and vines that had felt the need to probe the inside of the building.

The decrepit state of the temple was a very bad sign. About three traps had failed to even trigger properly, and that one had been slow, she could see roots entangled around the base of the spears. One of the shafts seemed a bit rotten half-way to the blade, she considered attempting to take it but thought better of it.

That temple was the oldest religious building in the known world. Discovered only twenty years prior, it could be found in the center of what was considered to be the thickest meanest jungle in the world: Jhayazon. 

It was inhabited by dangerous fauna, tribes of aggressive and territorial people. How and why the temple was there was a fact lost to the unknown history of their world, but it was said that the Amulet of Jakaraiah, the first light, was there.

Despite the lack of promise in the state of the building, there was an encouragement in how living beings avoided the place. Tribes always went around it, and animals stayed clear, even insects. The plants didn’t, but then they own the world, they have nothing to fear from decrepit constructions of men, or their artifacts.

In truth, why others had failed to retrieve the amulet had had little to do with the temple, they had failed before even reaching the building. But Zaniyah knew the jungle, that one, in particular, it was there she had grown up.

Moving along the wall, she found another encouraging sign. Stairs leading down. Nothing but darkness peered back at her, which meant she was about to go down to a level the plants hadn’t, a closed-off and probably properly protected part of the temple.

Okay.

The Hunter fashioned a torch out of the materials around her, using part of a branch, bushes, and rocks to light a fire. She had something else to use, a magical item, but she liked magic only a bit more than machinery, which wasn’t much at all. She preferred to have the torch, the fire was real and more useful than a glowing stone.

Halfway down the stairs, one of the steps slid down with her foot. Mechanisms engaged and she heard plating snapping into place, repeatedly and increasingly louder. Closer.

She saw the steps were flattening around ten away, which was enough time for her to jump. She split her legs and caught herself between the walls, keeping herself steady as the steps under her flattened, it kept going up to their start where a wall was pushing itself into place so as to close off the entrance.

Seemed the place wasn’t as decrepit as she had thought.

There is probably a pit at the bottom of the staircase.

The Hunter tested the wall for attrition by turning her feet somewhat and, content, allowed her body to fall back. Her head brushed the now smooth ramp, once a staircase, half a second before she pulled her feet close so as to let go.

Her body swung forward a few feet. She kicked off one of the walls, lightly kicked off the opposite one, to extend her lunge and also break her speed, and then split her legs again to get a firm grip. Her feet slid some inches but otherwise helped her stop her momentum, even if she ended up almost upside-down.

The Hunter breathed out. Breathed in and pulled herself up, turning her feet as she needed. It was arduous, and it took time, a lot of time, but that was sometimes the necessity of treasure hunting. By the time her body collided with the side of the pit that contained spikes at the bottom, her free hand grabbing on to the ledge she had nearly reached with her final swing, it was a blessing.

Her estimation was it had taken her around half an hour to go all the way.

She pulled herself up and sat down, massaging her legs and feet, in order to relax the muscles. Zaniyah was a bit annoyed because she could have simply slid down and leaped over the thing but there was no way to be sure the pit was that small and there really was no time to react to an unexpected trap if she was sliding down a ramp.

Ten minutes, she continued on, and the deeper she went, the more challenging the temple became. Tar floors lighting on fire, walls firing arrows, ceiling and floor closing on each other, things she was familiar with. Of course, there was the question on the back of her mind, wondering if she could find her way back out, but after dozens of past experiences, she had learned to not let that uncertainty be of much bother.

The Hunter needed all the concentration she could muster.

There were also inscriptions, and tombs. People were buried there, still holding their possessions – so to speak, of course, they were long past decomposed in the ground where their ashes were buried – and eventually she would come to the tomb she needed to steal from.

That of Jakarayah.

He was the prophet that turned the worship of the Light into the worldwide phenomenon that it was. She wondered if the whole thing was as corrupted back then as it is now, whether he was just the first iteration of the Lady of Light, which now led with her institutionalized practices and rules.

Zaniyah didn’t wonder for long, however, that kind of thing was beyond someone as simple as she was. She wanted to make her clan proud, that was about it.

The tombs were just simple doors on the floor, each with the name of occupant inscribed into it. The letters were in a now forgotten language, but she had been shown which would be Jakariah’s, the Hunter had it memorized.

She looked at the first tomb, finding out she had to dust it in order to be able to read the inscription. She did so cautiously, lest it be booby-trapped.

Nothing happened, and that wasn’t it. She held up the torch, which was now dwindling, and saw that she was in a room filled with them. The Hunter had the strong sensation her mark wouldn’t be one in a group but more one in a whole room, but there wasn’t really any rush so she preferred to check every single one individually.

They were spread across the floor like flower-beds in a flat park, a few inches protruded from the ground but otherwise pretty much tightly fit into it.

The Hunter had relaxed after checking up on the third, convinced the tombs weren’t going to ambush her. She was still moving carefully, one never knew if the ceiling didn’t have a trapdoor to drop acid or poisonous insects, or if the ground wouldn’t trigger some other kind of trap, but the tombs, at least, seemed to be safe. And the fourth tomb wasn’t it either–

She froze.

There had been a noise, she was sure of it, but the fire’s crackling was keeping the environment from being completely silent. Zaniyah blew on it immediately and, in the dark and quiet, stood still. Listening.

A faint, far-away noise…of a crash.

Maybe one of the traps? She thought of the moving ceiling, maybe it had collapsed? But another crash sounded out, again, very very far away. She couldn’t rationally explain it, but the sense she got was that it was by the entrance.

Zaniyah couldn’t reasonably explain why she suddenly felt a danger to her goal, to her life even. Fear of the unknown gripped her as she could only assume what else was there, but as another crash sounded, still faint and far-away and, yet, a tiny bit louder, she decided to throw most of her caution into the grave she was standing over.

There was a reason to rush now.

The crashing was erratic. There was violence to it. Something was busting through traps and entrances with all the subtlety and patience of a raging bull.

The Hunter ran around frantically, holding her magic stone up to the graves, how it worked is it lighted up with a yellow light and seemed to be fueled by contact with flesh. She preferred not to think about how it actually worked.

The stampeding approached more and more, she hurried more and more.

She changed rooms, finding more tombs. Exasperating, she threw all of her caution out the window – so to speak, there were absolutely no windows – and got to jumping from tomb to tomb, thankful none of the rooms were engaging traps.

The Hunter didn’t exactly notice how she started to sweat, but as her heart’s beating gained up speed, starting to run, she knew she was in trouble.

She changed rooms and was met with a chamber. It was wide and went far with tombs in rows after rows. Checking them all would take forever or, failing that, too long.

“Oh my…”

She recognized the sound of the tombs in the first room she had found, crashing.

It must be the LBA. They want to interfere with everything we seek to accomplish. She peered out into the room.

At a glance, there was a podium at front and center, elevated above the other tombs, and illuminated by a single ray of light. It was so faint, coming from what was probably an inch-wide crack in the ceiling many feet above.

That had to be it, but as another entrance seemed to rupture and fall, she had to be honest with herself and admit she wouldn’t reach it in time.

Alright. She pushed the light stone back into her small pouch, it immediately went dark, and jumped aside twice. Okay.

The Hunter quickly relaxed her heart and calmed her breathing.

Right by her, in the other room, tombs cracked and shattered under whatever it was. She was about to find out what.

The entrance to that gallery of the burnt burst inwards, announcing the arrival of the unstoppable thing that had been rampaging through the temple for the past ten minutes.

It was a beast.

She squeezed herself against the wall, hopefully outside its peripheral view, and held her breath.

A beast? What?!!

It didn’t make sense. Had they reached that far south? At the moment the beast landed and steadied itself, grasping the room, she could hear no more. Why only one? What?

There was only one possible explanation for that situation. Only one answer came to Zaniyah’s mind with all the certainty of every instinct she had accumulated across the years.

There really was something about the amulet.

The beast sunk its claws on the floor and leaned in preparation to lunge. In reaction, her nervous system flared. She imagined a world where the beast was successful at what it was trying to do, where the amulet, possibly a true threat to them, was destroyed right in front of her.

The feeling of failure produced a fear that consumed every other source of hesitation.

Without thinking, she leaped to the side, hopefully staying outside of view, and then jumped to grab at the beast.

Her hand grabbed on a crevice in the back of the neck just as the body lurched forward in its piston-like launch. Her body whipped as it got dragged on across the air, and she couldn’t help but squeeze out a grunt of effort.

They crossed the entire room in one amazingly fast glide, her body dragged like a cape, her fingers barely hanging on.

The beast started a descent, her body trying to follow but falling slower while still being pulled. The landing would have been violent if it had had a fully horizontal force, but the nature of it allowed the Hunter to let go an instant sooner so her body would continue the trajectory over the beast’s head. She front-flipped for added safety, and it was a good thing she did because her arms hit the beast’s head hard as she flipped over it.

The Hunter was on high alert.

Her senses flared and doubled their effectiveness, and her instinct had taken control. She caught a glimpse of how far away the tomb was and got a sense of how close to it she would land. Her body hit the ground tumbling uncontrollably, but Zaniyah simply focused on her feet. She made them hit the floor as soon as possible to send her in a leap towards the tomb.

A monstrous howl came after her while her body hit the lid of the tomb full-force and with little to no restraint, or focus. She was unsure how she had hit it, but it rebounded her hard back into another chaotic tumble, during which she felt gnawing pain in the shoulder.

Knowing she was tumbling back to the beast, she frantically scrapped to kick against the ground, afraid it’d attack and reach her.

It did.

The Hunter felt a sharpness cut across her back. “Raaah!” She jumped again and ran for the tomb, its lid had been pushed with enough force, it was sliding off.

Another howl came forth, and she knew the beast was about to leap at her again. With her back flaring dangerously hot, she pushed the lid to hurry it up and reached to grab the first thing her treasure hunter eyes got drawn to, all to the noise of the ground crunching behind her.

The Hunter turned her head and then jumped back to avoid the beast’s leap. It glided much less so it could hit the tomb, heavy-handedly crushing the whole thing and the small pedestal it had been on.

The Hunter landed on leveled ground and looked at what she had grabbed.

It was a pendant. Was it the amulet? Her intelligence didn’t have enough control of her mental faculties to compare the inscription to what she knew.

Her instinct, however, was coming in loud and clear.

YOU GOT IT! RUN!

Zaniyah turned and ran for her life.

A normal person would never outrun a beast. The beasts were only slow to jump from the point of view of someone who could split a second into different parts, perception-wise. Indeed, most really athletic people would also fail to do so. The Hunter could fail to do so but right then, at that moment, she had to succeed.

The fate of the world might well depend on that.

 With that pressure weighing heavily somewhere in the recesses of her survival instinct, she heard the wind cutting and knew where to dodge to. She hopped to the left, allowing the beast to crush the ground she would have been standing on if she hadn’t.

She got the sense that the beast would next jump straight for the entrance to cut her off. She measured distances and was pretty certain she would not make it in time.

Zaniyah had not seen any other exits. She would never be able to defeat the beast. She either made it to the exit or…

The Hunter ran faster than she had ever run before.

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