He was an adventurer. An explorer. An archaeologist with a knack for finding ancient secrets, retrieving them — and coming back, alive.
And he needed an assistant.
I was but a lowly fruit-seller in the town marketplace when Ulric came calling. And I knew that this was the moment that would change my life.
So here I am, creeping through the entrance hall to the crypt of Aygairo. It is famous in the surrounding villages, not only for the storied treasures hidden within, but also for its lethal traps. Many a bold youth has made the trek into the mountains to try their hand at Aygairo’s puzzles. A thousand years ago, he had been a rich king, but at the same time cunning and highly intelligent. The few explorers who survive return without their original fervour, and usually at least one limb. I am apprehensive, but hopeful, for I have something they did not. I have Ulric.
Ulric pauses, and holds up his hand. “Stop.” I halt immediately, a chill running down my spine. I had not seen any danger.
“Do you see these diamond tiles on the floor? These are pressure traps. Some will already have been triggered by animals or past explorers, but no sense taking chances. Step between them, or you won’t be long for life.” Ulric points, and I can vaguely see the diamond tiles in the half-light of his torch. I can also see some larger mounds and long, whitish objects lining the sides of the passageway. The stench along the hallway suddenly makes sense.
Ulric strides ahead, seeming to pay almost no attention to the ground beneath his feet. But I can see the subtle positioning of his feet, angling away from each trap. I do my best to follow in his footsteps, but I am clumsy, accidentally stepping on a few. Thankfully, they seemed to have already been triggered, and do not move.
The passage ahead zigzags, but the pressure traps are still present. I am getting better at navigating them, which is just as well, because the stench is diminishing, and I doubt that many of the traps at this point have already been neutralised.
At long last, we reach a door, and the end of the pressure traps. Rather, Ulric reaches a door, while I struggle to catch up. He kneels down and examines the stone mechanisms covering the door, while I make my way through the last few traps. Finally, I pass them. Exhausted, I lean against the walls, without thinking.
I feel the wall move under my weight. Gears grind and shift. Time slows down.
Ulric’s quick reflexes save me. Before I had even grasped the situation, Ulric had already leapt up, and thrown us both to the ground. I lie there, stunned, as crossbow bolts fly over our heads.
When things have quietened down, he pulls me to my feet.
“Seriously kid, try to think a little before you get the both of us killed.” He shrugs. “But I guess that’s not too bad. I’ve done worse.” He returns to his examination of the door.
I can’t help but notice that while I am sweaty, dirty, and exhausted, Ulric is none of them. His leather armour is clean and polished, and his cloak straight and smooth. His hair is immaculate, and his face displays no fear, no hesitation, only a detached concentration on the task at hand.
“Ah,” Ulric says. He begins to adjust the mechanisms, pulling vines from some gears, and repositioning others. “What do you know of the history of King Aygairo?”
“He was a king long ago,” I reply. “He and his brothers ruled the world, and Aygairo was king of this region.”
“Mostly correct. They didn’t rule the world, just the continent of Aviurre. The brothers divided up the land after their conquest, and Aygairo, as the fourth and youngest brother, obtained the poorest land in the centre, far from the sea. As luck would have it, however, Aygairo discovered an enormous deposit of gold and precious metals right here in these mountains. He shared it with his brothers, and the sudden windfall helped all of Aviurre prosper.”
“So, when Aygairo was on his deathbed, he decided that he would share his wealth once again. However, his brothers had passed before him, so he decided he would share it with any of their worthy descendants. And so…”
Ulric smiles, and from his satchel, he pulls out a golden cube. It is covered in intricate symbols, and on one face, has deep ridges carved into it. And on each face, there is a single symbol overlaying everything else.
“The Avire family crest,” I say, surprised. “So you’re the worthy descendant?”
“No,” he says, laughing. “I took this from King Ayheaor’s burial site two years ago.”
Ulric fits the cube into part of the door’s mechanism, and turns it slowly, like a key. There is a low whirring as mechanisms turn and grind. The door does not open, but the wall to our side slides away, revealing a hidden passageway.
“This is a secret passageway, only for descendants of Avire, which bypasses most of the traps here. It was hinted at in the tablets I found, but it only just fell into place when I studied the door.” Ulric laughs. “I’m not really who it was intended for, but this is just so much easier, you know?”
We follow the passageway, which is safe for the most part, other than the occasional arrow trap, rockfall trap, or unexpected flight of descending stairs.
The passage widens, and opens into a large chamber.
“The final chamber,” Ulric says, holding up his torch. In the dim light, I see a golden door at the other end of the room. Even if there is no treasure behind it, the door itself would be worth several hundred fortunes. I feel my heartbeat quicken. We are close.
Ulric notices my excitement. “Not so fast,” he says. “The pathway is trapped.” I look closely, and see that he is right. Beginning halfway across the chamber, the floor is entirely made of traps. Unlike the entrance hall, where there were still spaces between traps, the diamonds here are completely tiled together. There is no safe way forward.
“Don’t worry. It’s actually not difficult to pass this chamber, according to the tablets. All you need to do is go over there and pull that lever.” Ulric indicates a lever on the right side of the room. “I’ll let you do it. Go on.”
I jog over. Near the lever, the floor changes from solid stone to wooden beams with gaps between them. If I lose my footing here, I could fall to my death. Yet, Ulric was right; this task is still surprisingly simple compared to all the other traps in the chamber.
I reach the lever, give Ulric a thumbs-up, and pull
Pain. Dizziness. Darkness.
I groan, and open my eyes. I am lying on cold stone.
Where am I?
I try to sit up, but my right shin screams in protest. I look, and it is mangled. Halfway down, the bone has been bent to almost a right angle, and bone is protruding through the skin. Blood flows freely. I retch.
I hear footsteps from above, and find the energy to look up. “Help,” I croak.
Ulric looks down at me.
“As I thought,” he says, speaking more to himself than to me. “This was a trap of temptation.”
I don’t care what kind of trap it is. “Help me. My leg is broken.”
Ulric pauses. “I can’t. There is no way back up.”
I stare at him, confused.
“No easy way, at least. You see, the way this crypt was designed was that plunderers would be given a glimpse of the treasure to sap their spirit. Although pulling the lever would indeed disable the traps, they would be dropped into another series of traps. To get to the treasure, they will need to find their way back to the treasure room a second time.”
“So you’re coming down and we’ll find our way back? Together?”
“Well… I could, I suppose.” Ulric flashes me a terrible, terrible grin. “But this is just so much easier, you know?”
I sit in shock as Ulric began to walk away. I hear metallic clangs and creaks as Ulric opens the golden door and slams it shut again.
Then there is silence, and I am slowly bleeding out on a cold, stone floor.
And I decide to take matters into my own hands.
I am the apprentice of Ulric Lanhart. Although he has abandoned me to die, I will survive. I will escape. I will train. And I will have my revenge.
With newfound determination, I drag my screaming body toward the nearest wall.
I grab a small outcrop, grunting as I pull myself upright.
I feel the wall move under my weight. Gears grind and shift.
A/N: In retrospect, not my best work. Written without planning, it turned out long-winded and unfocused:
- Awkward transition from past to present tense at the beginning.
- Initial plans for the gold cube key artifact were not used in the end, making it redundant.
- Backstory of Aygairo et al. not properly thought out nor utilised.
- Rapport between MC and Ulric not established sufficiently to make the betrayal effective.