I sat up. Having rested on the floor for a time, I mustered the motivation to stand. Dusted ceiling and floor off my legs. I looked around.
There was no window in this room, and the one above, where I had fallen through, was out of reach. The back of this bedroom was incredibly black. I didn’t like the look of it.
I kicked the door in, into the hall. It fell straight down a sheer drop. It was a stairwell with no stairs, ahead of me. Peering down, I realized I could climb. From door frame to door frame, I could work my way to ground level.
“Hark,” a voice echoed out from the blackness. It sounded like a mountain of grinding metal uttering syllables.
“I’m not speaking with you,” I said. I wasn’t getting sidetracked with this.
I knew I was being watched. I didn’t care.
Stepping over the edge, I descended the stairwell one floor at a time. It took a while, but I was able to get down the concrete base of the drop.
I traveled to the front of the building, going out two grimy doors. I came onto the streets. Ash was waiting for me, standing in a clearing between the fallen chunks of the building from across the road.
“Do you know where the others are?” I asked.
“The-” Ash was cut off by a structure collapsing behind him. Something shot up from the ruins.
Anna landed beside Ash, harder than usual. He cleared dust away from his face and declared, “found her.”
“Can we go?” Anna said. “I’m ready to go.”
She saw something. I wasn’t going to ask.
“Yeah, let’s go look for Odessa,” I agreed.
Down on the street level, the buildings towered up impossibly high. They almost swayed, which was unnerving to watch as we walked. Some of them leaned against each other. The shadows were thick, almost completely shrouding.
There’s no way we’re climbing back up. It would take hours.
Our path had changed.
We turned the side of a tall faded pink building.
Odessa came into view, sitting in the center of a courtyard. She was sitting with her knees to her chest, her head buried in her free arm. As we approached, she rubbed at her face and stood, sword screeching on the asphalt as she did.
“There you three are.”
Her face was red, her hair was down and filled with dirt.
We were all silent for a moment. I think Anna didn’t want to talk about what she’d seen. Ash was following others’ leads. I wasn’t going to ask, again.
“You, uh, you ready to go?” I asked her.
I waved everyone along. We had united again. Now, straight is the way.
Up ahead the buildings drew tighter together, the wires and junk strung between them became denser. The path was bleaker.
The sixth and final bell tolled. This time, it came from deep beneath the earth. It marked the end of the fifth day, the beginning of the sixth and final.
This would be the end of our wandering. If we didn’t find the stronghold today, we’d have to go home. We could be dead in twenty-four hours. So, this was it.
So, this was it.
There was the chance we were completely lost, I recognized, descending to the grim alley. Cobblestone laded the path as it grew more like a dungeon. The sunlight was hundreds of feet up, barely peeking through the skyline.
We’re on the right path, I affirmed to myself. Destiny.
Sosias came to my mind, but I put that memory away.
“Careful,” Ash called. He stepped up to the front. “There’s unfriendly arachnids pretty much everywhere. Why don’t I lead?”
“Certainly.” I stepped back.
“Steel yourself, ladies. It’ spiders,” he mocked.
“Fuck you,” Anna spat. Unusually vitriolic.
I was ready to be done with this place.
We traveled for a while down the single alley, ignoring any side paths. Side paths which soon stopped appearing. The slit of light far above slowly narrowed. The buildings arched inward until finally, they met. Looking up, the wires and bars connecting the buildings on either side had become weblike, bodies of the Damned strung up amongst them like decorations. According to Ash, spiders inhabited them.
The walls dropped away to my left and right. I couldn’t reach out to touch them. Flames burned almost a mile ahead, I saw. As they got closer I could make out the giant chamber and door. It was a hundred yards off now and I could see it clearly.
We’d passed into a cavern tunnel, it led to a chamber. At the end of this chamber was a single massive wooden door. Torches were set into the wall at its side, basins of fire running around the room’s perimeter.
It was the stronghold’s entrance.
“This is it,” I said, pointing to the door. “We made it.”
Anna was ready to get out of here as well. “Wonderful. Let’s-”
The ground in front of us burst open. It was a thin layering of dirt and junk which broke wide for its body to rush through. A spider the size of a car which moved far too fast. It hissed and screamed. It lunged.
It would tackle us at a breakneck speed. It would kill us.
I jumped to the front, past Ash, and planted my feet, bellowing “Halt!”
The beast broke against an invisible barrier, stopping immediately, sending cracks through the cave floor with the impact. Fires around the room erupted, stalactites fell. My legs buckled, putting me to my knees. I couldn’t do that again.
Odessa charged the spider but didn’t attack.
“It’s crushed,” she told me.
“W-woohoo,” I replied, breathless.
Ash busted out laughing. “You shall n-!”
More hissing screeched up from the hole. A chorus. A second spider crawled up, followed quickly by a third, fourth, and fifth. They were all running towards us.
Odessa hacked, taking down one as it came close, but she couldn’t hit them all.
This was very bad.
The spiders ran around us, into the darkness to our back.
That’s worse, I think.
Something else was moving up the hole. A cacophony of clanging bones.
I forced myself to stand. To my right, Anna was in a readied stance, expression grim. Ash was focused, with a knife in each hand and a slight grin. Odessa was up at the front. I was just standing there. No weapon or power. Like a moron.
It came clamoring up the pit. A twelve-foot tall nightmare of flesh, bone, and fungus. In its bony hand, it unveiled a sword that looked to be hewn from obsidian.
Odessa let out an angry roar, slamming her sword into the floor.
Speaking the universal language.
The Gatekeeper lifted his massive sword and then swung. He followed the swing, circling as he stepped forward to close the distance between them. Odessa barely dodged the powerfully slung sword. She couldn’t parry against that force.
Ash ripped his knives through the air, placing two of his three shots into the Gatekeeper’s exposed skull. There was no reaction. No expression without skin and muscle, or in hollow sockets.
The Gatekeeper followed up by bringing his sword down on Odessa, who blocked. The clash broke her stance, nearly knocking her to the ground. He raised up again, ready for another. He would crush her.
Anna punched and let loose a blast of fire. It washed over the Gatekeeper’s gnarled torso, setting parts of him on fire. It didn’t stop him. He brought down a hard blow, forcing Odessa flat under her sword’s protection.
“Come on, Ash!” I yelled.
“Fuck it!” he yelled back.
We both dashed for Odessa without a plan.
Bad plan. It came to me.
I jumped, hopping up onto the dead spider that was lying there. I ran up its back and heaved myself through the air.
That got a reaction.
With his free arm, the Gatekeeper swatted me out of the air, off of my ill-fated trajectory towards his face. This was distraction enough. Odessa scuttled backward to safety, and Ash closed in.
I bounced and rolled against the rock, skidding to a stop beside the wall and a basin of fire. I groaned and rolled, stretched out my beaten body. My right arm twinged with pain. The stone floor had been a rough landing.
I looked and the Gatekeeper was limping straight for me.
Trying to push myself up, my right arm completely gave out, sending electric jolts through me. It was absolutely fractured. I fell onto my side and watched the monstrous Damned quickly approach.
He turned around for a moment to swing at Odessa, who was running up behind. She dodged and attacked. Her enormous sword struck the Gatekeeper’s already injured leg. He let out a loud banshee’s shriek, sharp and piercing.
Anna darted up and a strong wind followed her. She directed it to him. The Gatekeeper staggered but wouldn’t fall. He planted his feet and dug the tip of his sword into the ground, balancing himself.
I finally rolled over and sat up to stand, leaning on the flaming basin. I ran, clutching my arm, for the others.
In two quick strides, the Gatekeeper stepped into my path. He sliced at my center of mass. Jumping backward wouldn’t save me. I had to through myself under the arc of his sword and at his feet. Predictably, he stomped.
His foot smashed my body, planting down on my chest and driving the air from my lungs.
He had placed his balance on his injured leg. Odessa seized the opportunity.
Her sword cleaved the leg in half at the knee. The Gatekeeper toppled over like a tree, placing his weight on me as he fell. Odessa quickly followed up with hacks to his body while he was unable to defend. Crushing and cutting.
Anna rushed to my side. “Doran?”
I couldn’t speak yet. My ribs crackled as I breathed. My teeth grit.
“Are you going to be okay?” she asked, sounding panicked.
I nodded tightly. Reached my hand out.
Anna helped me up, and I managed okay. Everything hurt, but I was okay.
Odessa was still hacking away.
Ash punched me in the shoulder, chiding, “You’re fuckin’ stupid. We could have handled that without you.”
Ow. “The spider, though,” I offered.
“That was nifty. You’re still a retard.”
I grunted in response.
Odessa was satisfied that her foe was dead and had backed away. She pointed to the giant door and spoke, “Ready?”
“We’re home free,” Anna said.
Ash retrieved his knives from the Gatekeeper, and we all moved to the door. It towered over the room. Tall and imposing. There were no handles.
“I love these things,” Ash gushed. “Open sesame.”
The door creaked and groaned. It began to open. The stronghold was ahead and ready to receive us. The doors parted to give us view.
What I saw, it was a girl standing right in the road. A cross tattooed on her brow, a wicked grin just beneath it and a rusted blade in her hand.