The Coffin: Part 4

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7 of Fantasy Part 4. A wounded wolf must risk life and limb if he wants to survive.

Throb... Throb... Throb...

Marcus took each step at a measured, careful pace, each footfall causing his broken arm to twinge in pain. The spiral staircase that lead away from the treasure room was as steep as a mountain and so tightly wound that it had room for only one person. It also lacked a railing, which was proving to be a major obstacle to the wolf. His sense of balance had degraded severely. Marcus had never realized how important his arms were to general locomotion until one was stuck in a jury-rigged splint and unable to move.

He missed his sword. Now that the weight of Nimbus was gone, either on his back or in his hand, he felt... naked. He carried that blade almost everywhere, enjoying the sense of comfort and familiarity the weapon held for him. Not having the sword was another reason the wolf's movements were so uncoordinated. After spending decades learning to move unhindered with the huge blade, he felt uncharacteristically light, so much so that it was disorientating.

He missed his bow, too. This was mostly for sentimental reasons than anything else. He was a competent archer, but he was no master. If he was honest, his skills with throwing knives were probably more advanced than his archery.

At least he still had Priscilla. The elegant blade was strapped to his right shoulder still. Even though his dominant hand was in a splint, Marcus was so used to using Prissy in his left hand that he doubted that his performance using the blade would be hindered in a significant way.

"Well, not counting the broken ribs and the shattered arm," thought the wolf, wryly. He didn't like going deeper into the Coffin in his current state, but he didn't have the provisions to survive in the treasure room and wait for his body to heal naturally. He needed magic just as much as Astari did. Breaking one of the seals would be his best chance to repairing his broken body.

Speaking of provisions, Marcus wondered how Astari managed to live for so long down there without starving. The dragon even admitted he had lost track of how long he'd been down in the cave. Maybe it was the magic in those chains. That'd make the most sense. Marcus could never really wrap his head around the arcane arts. They were such esoteric things to him, a power governed by its own set of impossibly complex laws that allowed its users to bend the very fabric of the world to their whims. Rickert had tried to explain some of the theory behind his spellwork to Marcus once or twice, but... no. It was better to not think about Rickert right now.

Lost in his musings, Marcus had only just noticed that the stairs had ended, and that he now stood in a long, narrow corridor, made of finely worked stone. Curiously, this passage looked like it was the product of men, with smooth walls and defined right angles for corners. But it was all one, smooth cut of stone instead of brickwork. It was like someone took a perfect rectangular slice out of the rock. The passage was completely devoid of illumination, save for the light flickering of Marcus' lantern.

Unhooking the bullseye lantern he always kept from his belt, Marcus pointed the conical head of the lantern down the corridor before closing the secondary shutters, focusing the little circle of light he was standing in into a cone. The long, narrow beam failed to find the end of the passageway. Frowning, Marcus hung the lantern back at his waist and opened the shutters halfway, allowing a faint amount of illumination to fill the hall and leaving his lupine eyes to penetrate the darkness.

The wolf's steps were careful and measured. He pressed his left side against the wall so he'd take up less space. His intuition told him that he'd run into some sort of obstacle here. In places like The Coffin, there was no such thing as an empty corridor. As he sidled down the passageway, Marcus' eyes flicked downward at the floor. It was discolored, the dark obsidian of the passageway covered in dirt and scuffed so that the stone was more of a shade of brown than black. "This place was or is well traveled."

That was both a good and bad thing. Major thoroughfares of complexes such as The Coffin were rarely trapped. It was too risky: a minion or even the master himself might accidentally trip a trap when trying to move around. Even if The Coffin was currently uninhabited by a necromancer or some dark lord, it was clear that this place had been touched by men at some point, and traps could last for eons if they went untriggered.

But it also meant that Marcus was likely to run into something hostile as he edged his way down. If the enemy didn't need light to see in the dark, they'd most certainly have the drop on him. Even with the lantern half closed, they'd see him coming a mile away.

As if the whims of fate were reading his thoughts, Marcus' ears detected a slight, shuffling sound and a set of light, clattering footfalls against the stone floor. It was certainly coming from the direction Marcus was headed. Straining to listen, it sounded like a group of four, at least. Slowly, Marcus drew three throwing knives positioned between his knuckles from the inside pocket of his coat. Should he brighten the light? He could potentially ambush whatever was lurking down the hall, but they'd probably already seen his lantern. Besides, they didn't seem to need light themselves.

Using the palm of his hand, Marcus flicked the latches on his lantern, opening the shutters wide and letting light flood the hallway. In the very distance, Marcus' emerald eyes saw the shadowy silhouettes of four creatures, vaguely humanoid but bone thin, and most likely undead. Marcus' arm twinged in anticipation. Lifting the hand that held the knives, Marcus readied himself for the creatures to come closer.

The skeletons walked forward, their pace unchanging even though their target was in clear view. They were all armed with small shields bearing the mark of a faded green serpent and thrusting swords: rapiers or perhaps estocs. Finally, one of the skeletons charged at Marcus, its sword outstretched and ready to skewer the wolf. The moment it began its charge, Marcus twisted his body into a powerful spin, keeping his eyes focused on his target before twisting it away at the last possible second, almost as if he were practicing ballet. The knives flashed silver through the air, tumbling end over end.

Even in the heat of battle, Marcus thought wryly of his old swordmaster, who would have reprimanded for such a flashy and ineffective throw, useful only for impressing the commonfolk with cheap tricks rather than effectively incapacitating an enemy. But hitting with the hilt was key with a skeleton: it would reassemble itself for days if its bones remained intact. However, the combination of the ineffectual throw and the dead weight of his gimped arm detracted from his aim, and two of the three knives to clattered harmlessly against the stone wall. The final dagger lodged itself against the skeleton's shoulder, blade side in. The blade slightly reduced the maneuverability of the undead's shield arm, but that was it. A perfect waste of throwing knives, really.

The incoming skeleton was still charging, and its thin sword rushed forward with a hiss of air. The pointed blade caught the edge of Marcus' overcoat, ripping the fabric just under his right arm but not piercing his armor or flesh beneath. The skeleton's charge left it off balance, and Marcus raised a leg, clad in black iron greaves and kicked it firmly in the chest, cracking the spine in several places. The wolf allowed himself a savage smile.. A few more strikes like that and the thing would need to use its hands to walk.

The skeletons attacked in a ragged group, their stabs uncoordinated but coming fast enough to stop Marcus from finding an opening. He simply backed down the endless corridor, weaving under the pointed swords. The wolf checked over his shoulder as he retreated. The hallway was long, but it wasn't endless. Again, Marcus missed Nimbus on his back. The great length of the blade could have swept aside those puny rapiers in a single blow. "But now was not the time for wishful thinking," mused the wolf as he backed up a few more paces. Even still, there weren't even any rocks on the ground to crack their skulls.

Marcus growled, infuriated that he was letting a foe he once thought trivial become an insurmountable obstacle. Clenching his fists, Marcus backed up a final step before charging forward, injured shoulder first. Lances of pain wracked his arm as the skeleton's swords slid through the gaps of the chainmail-reinforced coat. But Marcus gritted his teeth as he took the wounds. They seemed to be light injuries, and pain was something for after the battle. Besides, he couldn't risk crippling his other arm.

The warrior wolf retaliated with a sweep of his left leg, crouching low and swiping his armored boots underneath the spindly legs of the undead. They fell to the ground with a clatter, the bones falling and rolling across the floor. The victory was short lived, and the bones started to fly back together, as if they were hounds pulled back on a leash. But as the undead reassembled, Marcus brought his foot down like an executioner's axe, once, then twice. The heads of two skeletons were smashed to fragments. The rest of the skeleton's bodies rattled to the floor as the spell holding their bodies broke with the skulls.

The rapiers of the remaining undead were swift to return blows, but they produced only a shallow flesh wound in one of Marcus' pectorals, painful but in no way threatening. Marcus let out another savage growl, picking up a newly inanimate femur and brought it down with a crack of bone on bone. Marcus kept up his attack, ferociously bringing the leg bone down over and over, not even stopping to breathe as the third skeleton's skull fell to pieces on the stone floor.

The final skeleton continued its mindless attack, but it was the one that Marcus had hit previously with his knife and boot. Its gait was clumsy, and it couldn't use its shield properly. Marcus brought the bone-club up in a fierce uppercut, detaching the skull from the vertebrae. The skull hit the floor, clattering and bouncing almost comically as the rest of its body rattled to the ground at the loss of its head. Marcus scowled, somewhere between irritated and bemused at the skull rolling around and snapping its jaws in futile attempts to continue its attack. The wolf gave himself a few moments to breathe before bringing down his heel to shatter the skull.

Suddenly, Marcus slumped against the wall, leaning on his good arm. The surge of energy brought on by battle left his body just as fast as it arrived. He let out a long sigh, noticing small trickles of blood were staining his coat. Why was he so exhausted?! Or was it his damned arm? He was wasting time. If he kept going, his arm wouldn't be a problem much longer.

He couldn't keep letting his pain master him. He'd never get that next seal if he continued to agonize over his wounds. He needed to focus, to block out external discomforts while he still had a purpose. With a grunt, the wolf sat down, leaning his back against the sculpted wall and sliding until his tail brushed against the floor. His emerald eyes closed, and in an instant, Marcus was no longer in The Coffin.

Marcus sat, his legs crossed in a lotus position, his arms laying limply in his lap to accommodate the shattered limb. A lake of still, ebony water sat beneath Marcus, the wolf's tail sweeping back and forth and creating tiny ripples of wind on the mirror-surface of the lake. A single drop fell upon the water, accompanied by a single, high-pitched note, like that of a harp.

Another drop. Another twang of sound as three, perfectly circular ripples spread to the shores of the circular lake. Another drop. Another twang. Beneath the surface of the subtly undulating lake, a figure appeared, indistinct yet staring into Marcus's face with soft, silver eyes and round, distinctly rodent-like ears. Another drop. Another twang. Marcus clenched his eyes shut and shook his head as he hovered over the black lake. When he opened his eyes again, the silver shadow was gone.

With a shake and rustle of chain, Marcus stood up, the black lake gone and his body nearly thrumming with a newfound focus His arm still remained attached to his body, but any pains were gone, instead replaced with a hollow emptiness that at least saved him the agony of his jury-rigged splint. Marcus continued onward, with a newfound vigor.

"Perhaps the uniformity of this hallway was as maddening as the endlessness, or even more so," mused Marcus. This corridor could be a hundred feet or a hundred miles, and Marcus would have no way to tell. Curiously, as if The Coffin was listening to him, a low rushing sound reached Marcus' ears. The wolf's nose twitched, the air layered with the scent of wet rock. More intriguing was the fact that the yellow glow of his lantern wasn't the only light in the hall right now.

The same crystals as in Astari's treasure room were visible at the end of the hall, but they were smaller, and less concentrated than upstairs. Their low blue glow kept the room in a sort of early twilight seen on a misty spring morning. It was large and cavernous, with a massive cataract running slashing a massive swath through the center of the room. The white water roared as it rushed through the cave, splattering the walls and stalactites and filling the unventilated room with a fine white mist that refracted the light of the crystals. Even under the roar of water, Marcus could hear the low hum of the crystals.

Marcus stepped into the cavern, his lupine night vision serving him well despite the weak light of the crystals. It appeared to be uninhabited, save for moss and lichen. The wolf tasted the air, so thick with mist that he could almost drink it. He eyed the cataract with apprehension, memories of his recent fall vivid in his mind. The ground was slick, and Marcus wasn't keen on trying to take a running jump over the water. Besides, the room looked like it was a dead end.

But beneath the bluish glow of the mist, another detail of the room escaped his glance. Another pool lay separate from the rushing cataract. It was clearly formed drop-by-drop over the eons as water fell from the ceiling into a small depression on the floor. The wolf leaned down, dipping his muzzle under the still surface and taking a slow, deep drink. The water was ice cool, and clearer than the best blown glass. It was only when Marcus lifted his muzzle away from the surface that he noticed the sheer depth of the pool. He peered down, marveling at how deep the water cut into the stone. Marcus walked to one of the small, ringing crystals, peering at it with interest. With a brusque kick, Marcus's greaves collided with the glowing minerals. It shattered with surprising ease. The wolf leaned down and picked up a fragment, still glowing with soft blue light. After playing with the shard in his palm, he held his hand above the pool and dropped it.

With a faint plop, the shard fell through the water at a leisurely pace. The light refracted through the pool, casting every angle and curve into sharp relief. Just before the crystal hit the floor of the pool, it was suddenly swept into a tunnel by an unseen current, casting the cave pond back into shadow.

Marcus growled ponderously. It was risky. Possibly stupid. He had absolutely no idea where that tunnel went or how long it was. But the only other way forward was through a roaring waterfall. Marcus leaned against a wet pillar, his fingers stroking his chin. There really wasn't much of a decision to make. The wolf puffed out his chest, taking in as much air as he could before jumping in feet first, twisting his body into a sidestroke so that his weakened arm would not be exerted during the swim.

The pool turned out to be shallower than he thought. Marcus kicked his way down, reaching the floor of the pond after three body-lengths. The water pressure pressed into his ears as Marcus looked around, finding a large, man-sized tunnel that gently pulled at his submerged jacket. With a savage kick, Marcus rocketed up to the surface of the pool, breathing deeply and treading water. He'd fit down there, no doubt. The way forward seemed self-evident.

With a gasp and a twist, Marcus submerged, kicking off the cave walls to submerge faster, using his arm to steer himself into the tunnel. The current tugged at Marcus's body, but was not strong enough to prevent him from retreating if it became necessary. The tunnel was conveniently lit by more of the crystals, and Marcus had no difficulty navigating it. His movements were determined but not rushed, keeping his pace controlled so that his breath was conserved.

Even with the wolf's rationing of movement and breath, Marcus felt the water pressing at his chest, and the tunnel didn't seem to be getting any shorter. As his lungs grew tight from need, Marcus started swimming faster, starting to panic slightly. He'd gotten himself in over his head again. Gods damn it!

Again, The Coffin seemed to listen to the wolf, and he saw a glow of light from the end of the tunnel. The rock was curving up, and with a scrabble of claws on wet stone, Marcus' head broke the surface. He gasped, tasting cool, sweet air. "So it looks like I can make it through, if push comes to shove." noted Marcus.

Kicking his legs to tread water, the wolf peered about the room. It was remarkably similar to the one he just left, only smaller. Dim, blue crystals were dotted across damp limestone. There was even a cataract casting a fine mist about the room, but the flows were narrower than the first room, barely as wide as Marcus' shoulders compared to the massive torrent above.

Marcus clambered out of the pool, rustling his body to shed himself of water. The chamber was perhaps eight paces wide, and the pool occupied about a fourth of it. The whole layout of this damned place was perplexing. He'd gone down a staircase with only one landing, through an impossibly long hallway with only one way to go, through an underground tunnel with only exit, to another dead end. There wasn't even evidence of a cave in or some other reason a path was previously blocked. He leered at the pool, which was surprisingly still despite the fact he'd just climbed out of it.

Glaring back at him was not a wolf, but the face of a feline. The face was severe, every line sharp, as if it was honed with a file. The fur was a sheen, steel-grey spotted with inky black. White, pointed teeth were gleaming beneath a wry half-smile, as if brought on with exasperation. "Still slamming your head against the wall?"

Marcus bit into his lip, unable to look away from the apparition in the pool. He didn't speak. He couldn't.

"You're not stupid, Marcus," grumbled the cat in a silky, melodic purr. "Use your brain. What does a dead end mean in a dungeon?"

Marcus shook his head, unwilling to validate the feline spectre.

"Well? You know this, don't you?"

"You're not real," whispered Marcus, still unable to break away from the vision in the water. "You're not real." His good arm struck like a snake, his open palm slapping the water and breaking the clear mirror surface into a hundred undulating ripples.

Standing up, Marcus growled to himself again. He hated to admit it, but the phantasm had a point, real or not. A dead end meant something was either hidden there, or at least used to be hidden there. The wolf stood and pressed his body flat against the damp stone wall. His pointed ears were pricked up as he listened to the smaller waterfall. He paid special attention to the acoustics of the room, noting how the sound of crashing water reverberated about the chamber. Marcus inched along the wall, ears still trained for any abnormalities of sound. Halfway around, the sound of the cataract changed, losing volume but picking up an echoey quality. Immediately, Marcus slid his good hand across the slick stone, feeling for a... a something.

That something was a seam in the wall, and with a tug, that seam widened into a passageway just wide enough for the wolf to walk down. Remembering that his lantern was soaked from his little dip, Marcus gave one of the glowing crystals a solid kick, shattering it into easily portable fragments. Marcus noted how brittle the crystals were, despite the fact they looked so solid. The dim light was light enough for his lupine night vision to reach far down the pathway.

A hand casually traced the subtle grooves of the walls, but no flaws or seams were really apparent. However, the path split into four branches ahead, and Marcus could tell each path subsequently branched into countless more. Carving out such an intricate labyrinth must have taken years, or a hell of a lot of magic. When Marcus reached the fork, he turned left without hesitating. Long experience taught him the best way to navigate a maze was to just dedicate oneself to a single direction, and old superstition prompted Marcus to go left. "Always go left first when underground," thought Marcus with a wry smile to himself.

"I never understood why you always insisted on indulging that silly superstition of yours," chided a disembodied voice, its tone a somewhat high tenor but still distinctly male. His words were clipped, almost like a bark.

"You know I feel uneasy when we leave-" Marcus shut his muzzle with a sharp clack of his teeth. He bit the inside of his cheek so hard he drew blood. "No. No! Nononononono! You're not supposed to be here." In an instant he'd lost all composure, clutching at his greying hair so hard it stung.

A shadow so dark it seemed to absorb light was leaning against the wall a little farther up on the path, right by another fork. Its profile was distinctly canine, but shorter and heavier than Marcus. It held a large book in its hand, and it paged through it idly as it addressed Marcus. Unlike the rest of its body, its teeth and eyes flashed bright white as it spoke. "Why aren't you marking where you've been? You've gotten senile in your ol-"

Marcus growled, drawing a knife with his left hand. It whistled through the air like a shrike. Marcus put enough velocity into the throw that the knife buried its blade in the water-softened limestone. The canine phantom discorporated in a wisp of black smoke. With a snarl, Marcus walked up to retrieve the blade. He had to admit, that the phantasms were right, even though he hated himself for it. Again, these were amateur oversights he was making.

Using the knife he retrieved, Marcus scratched an X into the damp limestone, along with a single tally. Now he'd remember that he'd been here before and that he'd explored one path already. As Marcus turned, he noticed that the throbbing in his broken arm was returning, growing stronger with each beat of his heart. The sharp pain of his ribs was also creeping back.

The wolf scowled. The specters were making him lose his focus. Leaning back against the spot on the wall where the canine phantom stood, Marcus closed his eyes again. As he stood above the black mirror lake, Marcus listened for the first drop of water. Instead, a high whisper echoed across the water, high enough to almost be a falsetto. "Is that you Marcus?" The silver eyed shadow was back. Marcus closed his eyes, but the specter spoke his name again. He stood, captivated on the black lake, at the mercy of his psyche for an agonizing minute that could have been seconds or hours. With a mental yell, Marcus tore himself from the lake, cursing the apparition.

Marcus set off down the next fork with newfound purpose. If pain was the cost of not humoring the phantoms, so be it. He'd mastered himself when suffering from grievous injuries before. It just meant he'd need to find that seal all the faster.

The limestone labyrinth was made of straight angles and branching paths. It was certainly a baffling maze. Each branch felt like Marcus was moving forward, but somehow he'd wind up circling round to a place he'd visited once before. Each time he chose a path he marked it with Priscilla, grateful that the enchantment in the blade prevented it from dulling or breaking. As Marcus wandered, the pain of his chest and arm returned in full force, perhaps even stronger than before after he'd dulled the pain once before. But with each step, Marcus found a new way to dull the pain. It wasn't a matter of ignoring it, but simply to acknowledge its presence and refusing to succumb, to not humor the injuries with moanings and grinding of teeth.

Marcus looked at a four way intersection that he had most certainly seen before. Three scratches marked a wall, indicating that one path remained unexplored. "By the gods, getting out of here will be downright arduous," mused Marcus. His reverie was broken by a faint clicking sound and the unmistakable smell of ozone. Ears perked from beneath his hood, Marcus scanned the long, narrow corridor. Suddenly, with a flash of blue-white, the maze erupted into an ear-splitting cacophony. Driven by an instinct honed since he was a child, Marcus hit the floor, landing on his left arm and shutting his eyes.

The light was so bright it left great black splotches in the wolf's vision, even with his eyes tight shut. Every strand of fur on his body stood up as an electric crackle missed him by mere inches. When Marcus opened his eyes, he was laying on his side on the hard, damp ground, barely able to see past the red-black afterimages. Hot blood trickled down the side of his face. Slowly reaching up with his hand, Marcus realized that the blood was coming from his ears. The world was silent, save for a high ringing that was certainly not there before.

"Traps mean there's something to hide," thought Marcus as he stood up, rolling his left shoulder. He felt a fresh bruise, earned from hitting the ground so fast. He peered down the hallway, this one much longer than the others. His wolf eyes pierced the shadows. There was a golden something down that corridor, glowing a little in the dark, but it was too far away for Marcus to determine what that something was. He began to trot down the hallway, green eyes darting about for any other traps.

Marcus smelled it before he saw it. As if reacting to his damaged hearing and sight, Marcus' sense of smell seemed to strengthen. The same scent amplified in the confined space, and Marcus dropped to the floor again, covering his eyes with his arm to better protect them from the lightning flash. The tinnitus grew even stronger, and his ears practically burned after suffering the brunt of two thunderclaps.

"All right," thought Marcus, quite calm despite the fact he'd narrowly missed being struck by lightning twice. "New plan then." Getting up from his prone position, Marcus propped himself into a three point runner's stance before dashing forward at full speed. Even though Marcus was running at full pelt, the hallway seemed longer somehow. His emerald eyes fixated on the faint golden glow. As he approached, the glow at the end of the hallway strengthened, illuminating the hallway. A crystal, much like the ones Marcus was using for illumination, was placed at a T-shaped intersection. As the gem began to crackle, ready to discharge another thunderbolt, Marcus propelled himself into the air in a flying kick.

The wolf was fast, but not fast enough. As the enchanted gem shattered beneath Marcus' heavy black boot, the wolf's body was wracked with an electric discharge. He gasped, stumbling and falling onto his back. The wolf curled up on the ground, his body coiling tight around itself as the electricity entered and left in an instant. Lying on the stone floor, Marcus indulged in a short curse. "That... that hurt," mumbled Marcus aloud. He simply laid on the floor for a minute, feeling exhausted from the fresh injury. Every muscle in his body felt strained and tight, like he had endured a vigorous training session without properly stretching afterward.

Marcus stood up with a low grunt, rolling his shoulders again to ease his muscles. He didn't seem to have suffered any lasting damage from the shock, and it seemed the hallway was now devoid of thunderbolts. "Not a bad trade," mumbled Marcus. His eyes glanced down both sides of the T intersection. Both corridors seemed identical, but beneath the burnt, electrical smell left over by the thunderbolts was a fresher scent, almost like the ocean. He shrugged. "Follow your nose, I guess." It was the left path anyway.

This new path was also much different than previous ones. There was a different quality to the limestone, and the passage curved, like it was naturally cut through erosion than the austere sculpting of the maze behind Marcus. The wolf was also getting the distinct feeling that the path was moving down, though it was probably due to the fact that this was yet another corridor that seemed impossibly long, completely empty other than the echo of Marcus' footsteps.

The oceanic scent grew stronger though, salty yet also organic. Marcus found the smell invigorating, enjoying the feeling like he was close to something that wasn't undead, even if that living thing was only fish. As he rounded another winding corner, Marcus' eyes widened. He stood before what looked like a temple forgotten by time. The walls, columns, and ceilings were hung with black and red drapes, faded and torn. Pews of wood and stone lined the hall, both in equal states of decrepitude. And dominating the space was a huge raised dais, upon which stood... was it some sort of sarcophagus? It was enormous, like it was meant to contain eight people at the very least, and carved from a shiny black stone. From Marcus' viewpoint atop a straight, steep staircase, it did seem to be thankfully empty. Two fountains of greenish water splashed on each side of the great tomb. They reeked of the salty smell of ocean fish now that Marcus was closer.

"Well if this place doesn't hold something important I'll swallow my sword," chuckled Marcus. He held up one of the luminous gems, shining the bluish light through this forgotten chapel. His footfalls echoed as Marcus took the stone stairs into the forest of ancient pews. If it wasn't so dilapidated, it would have been rather grandiose, and Marcus wondered what kind of gods were worshiped here. While the banners were black and red, they bore no holy symbol. Perhaps this was a place for lost gods...

Marcus approached the sarcophagus, examining the lid that lay askew across the stone dais. Unlike the rest of the temple, the carved adornments of the stone coffin were untouched. Furs of all size and shape were depicted piled atop each other, their bodies limp and broken. The figures were splattered with a lurid red that contrasted the obsidian, pooling under the bodies of the figures. Standing above the pile of bodies was a great... something... It was certainly enormous, its biggest feature being great, curled ram horns. "Perhaps it was best that this god was lost," mumbled Marcus, running a finger down a trail of red on the lid. The stone was stained a rusty brown in certain places.

With a heave, Marcus pushed the gruesome carving off the sarcophagus so that it leaned off the side of the coffin. One end of the lid hit the ground with a floor-shaking thud and a cloud of dust. Laying in the basin of the coffin was a collection of massive bones. Marcus knew monsters, but it was hard to identify what this jumbled pile used to be. It must have been dead for a while, as the bones were a dusty yellow and devoid of marrow. Most perplexingly, the head and spine were missing from the sarcophagus, though Marcus could clearly identify the limbs and the remains of the ribcage. Perhaps this was what used to be worshiped here...



Marcus jumped, and without stopping to think, dived under the lid of the sarcophagus, curling just under the niche where the lid touched the ground. The wolf slides the crystal shard he was using as light into his coat, the faded black leather obscuring the glow. In the shadows Marcus held his breath, hoping whatever was making those noises didn't notice the glow of the gem.




Marcus' mind was racing. "Those have to be footsteps. But what's big enough to produce such noise just by walking?" Marcus immediately discounted a drake or similar creature. The steps were too slow and regular to be non-bipedal. "Could the remains have reanimated?" thought Marcus. But that didn't make sense either. Why would a reanimated corpse leave half its bones behind.

A dull red glow began to illuminate the ancient chapel as the great footfalls grew louder. Marcus half expected the stone sarcophagus to begin rattling. As Marcus skunked in the shadows, a massive, cloven hoof came into view, accompanied by the sickly-sweet smell of rot.

"A minotaur!" The ram horns on the coffin made sense now... But this was certainly no ordinary bull demon. The size alone was evidence of that. But the fur was greyish and crawling with what looked suspiciously like maggots. "I guess it figures that a dungeon called The Coffin is teeming with undead. Maybe anything that dies in here is just automatically raised as a zombie or something."

Marcus' soliloquy was interrupted by a conspicuous silence. The wolf's only warning was ten decaying fingers curling under the lid of the obsidian lid. With a great thud, the slab was thrown to the floor. For an instant, Marcus' green eyes locked with the minotaur's: a pair of fiery cinders that were alight with a conscious malice that set it apart from a common zombie. In its hands was a massive mace, cruelly crafted from the skull and spine missing from the black casket.

With a noise between a gurgle and a roar, the bull-wight raised the bone mace, aiming to gore Marcus with the curled horns on the head off the weapon. The world seemed to stand still for a split second. Marcus sprung from his crouch and slipped between the rotted legs of the beast, whose knees were at Marcus' shoulders.

With a crack of splitting stone, the bone club obliterated the black casket. Though Marcus escaped the crushing blow, flying fragments of stone hit the wolf In the back, tearing at his black coat and tattooing him with fresh bruises. He howled, the cry of pain echoing through the hall as he arched his back in agony.

Marcus had no time to nurse these fresh wounds. The skull club was already hurtling towards him. Marcus tried to dash away, but the tip of a horn clipped his broken arm. Pain overtook Marcus, coursing through his body. Already broken bones cracked, and Marcus felt fragments of his radius almost puncture his skin. Yet the club was already swinging back to strike again.

Marcus jumped again. Despite that he had evaded the minotaur's attack, agony still wracked Marcus' chest. His cracked ribs were feeling the strain of so much running and jumping. And yet he had no time for respite as the bull continued its relentless assault. Marcus growled, frustrated at being on the retreat. He'd taken down bigger things than this before, but he'd had Nimbus with him. As good of a dagger Priscilla was, it just wasn't up to the task of felling giants in the same way as his greatsword. Plus he couldn't concentrate on his for with the pain in his limbs and chest.

Marcus clenched his fist as he sidestepped another earthshaking blow. He knew the solution, but was reluctant to try it after what had transpired earlier in his explorations. Marcus' mind was made up as the rotten bull picked up a boulder-sized fragment of the ruined sarcophagus and heaved it at the wolf. Heedless of the pain in his chest, Marcus sprinted towards the pews, rolling sideways behind a stone pillar as another slab of obsidian hurtle past the place where he was standing only two seconds before. Crouching on his heels, Marcus left the ruined chapel for the black mirror lake. Even though Marcus could see sleek grey fur and shining silver eyes glittering beneath the water, he ignored them, thinking only about the glass like surface of the lake. Ripples moved across the surface as the harp echoed through emptiness.

Marcus opened his eyes, his ears assaulted by a cacophony of shattering stone. Quick as a flash, Marcus tucked and rolled. He put too much weight on his bad arm, and noticed with a detached manner that the skin was punctured. But there was no pain. There was only Marcus and the minotaur. The wolf's vision seemed to tighten, the edges of his sight growing dark so that Marcus could focus on the greatest threat. Yet, upon the edges of his tunnel vision stood two phantoms. Both were female, one a mouse, petite with pure white fur and a gracefully sloped profile. The other was a steel- grey feline holding a bow, her thin frame sharp as a rapier and eyes a rich, multifaceted hazel. As Marcus jumped away from another hammer blow, he shouted, whether in the confines of his own mind or out loud, "Don't just stand there! Help me!"

To Marcus' surprise, the spectres nodded their heads before dashing in different directions, the rest of the world appearing as if in slow motion. The feline leapt atop a pile of rubble and drew four arrows from one of her numerous quivers, shooting then at an inhuman speed. The arrow heads buried themselves in the rooted flesh just below the bull's knees and elbows. In Marcus' mind's eye he saw a second visage of the bull, almost an afterimage, its movements hampered from the projectiles.

In three light steps, Marcus joined the cat on her perch, drawing steely daggers in his left hand. The minotaur was moving towards the wolf, club raised above its head. The air whistled as three knives flew from Marcus' hand. Two lodged themselves in the bull's exposed elbows, which caused the wight to strike at an awkward angle, missing Marcus completely.

The phantom feline shot another arrow at the bull's wrists, and Marcus moved to imitate her, letting his enhanced senses guide his throw. Two blades lodged in rotted flesh, breaking the minotaur's thumb. Without a functioning hand to hold it, the great bone fell to the floor. The minotaur seemed unfazed. It simply ducked its massive head and charged, aiming for Marcus with its brutal horns.

Time slowed to a crawl as the white mouse jumped in front of Marcus. She flew gracefully through the air as the great bull continued to charge forward, so that the mouse landed upon the back of its neck before jumping to the floor, unharmed. Marcus mimicked the rodent's movements, having no choice but to heed the advice of his phantasms. Just as the mouse did, Marcus landed on the bull's shoulders before stepping lightly to the floor.

Even as Marcus landed, the minotaur was flipping around, prepared to rush again. Marcus looked to his phantoms for guidance, but found them standing next to a great stone pillar, unmoving with arms folded. Marcus growled. Of course... This was a ruse. His spectres had never been so benevolent before today. Was it all just a way to lure him to his own demise? Instead of joining them by the pillar? Marcus sprinted towards the bull, dropping into a slide at the last minute. The wolf's nose barely avoided the monster's charging horns. In a flash of white, Marcus drew Priscilla, slashing at the bull's legs. Despite that the flesh was rotting, the creature's hide stopped the dagger in its tracks.

Marcus stood from his slide, letting the bull charge him again. He repeated his maneuver, but continued to fail to pierce the thicker hide on the bull's legs and body. After the fifth attempt to hamstring the monster, Marcus looked in the direction of his phantasms. They remained by the pillar, the mouse beckoning him over with a wry smile while the feline rolled her eyes in exasperation. With trepidation, Marcus jumped over a set of ruined pews to join the females. The minotaur pursued, smashing through the wood and stone pews as if they were only garden shrubs. At the last second, the two phantoms spun away from the bull, followed by Marcus.

With a thunderous crash, the monster collided with the pillar. It staggered, and as it stepped backwards, the great stone column fell like a fallen tree, crushing the great bull with a symphony of crashing rock and shattered bone. The bull still twitched beneath the rubble, and without hesitation, Marcus approached the pinned beast and brained it with a single stab to the eye. At last, the undead was still.

Only after the creature was dead did Marcus realize how warm and wet his overcoat was. His right arm was soaked with blood where the bone had punctured his arm. With a brusque wrench, Marcus returned his bones to their place inside his arm before tightening his makeshift splint so that it could function as a tourniquet. Only after his crude first aid was complete did Marcus let his trance recede, letting his pains return to sharp relief just as his spectres faded into the darkness.

With halting, exhausted steps, Marcus staggered to the obsidian coffin. Despite the gruesome scene it had depicted, Marcus was almost sad to see out in ruins. The craftsmanship and care taken into its construction was evident in every detail, even as it laid in pile of rubble. "Like everything else, even stone must one day pass away." Marcus picked up a fragment of the lid that depicted the minotaur standing on the pile of bodies. As the wolf tossed it aside, a glint of bronze caught Marcus' eye.

Slowly, Marcus let out a low chuckle that was more of a gurgle. Each laugh made his chest hurt more, but his success filled him up with a euphoria that bordered on delirium. "Heh...heheh..." Marcus stopped to spit up a globule of his blood before reaching down to pick up the heavy disk, adorned with two large prongs. With newfound resolve, Marcus turned around and headed back the way he came. For some reason, the return trip seemed to take less time than it should have.