Chapter II – Best Left Buried

Zac slept fairly decently for the few brief hours he had before sunrise. When the first rays of sunlight crept into his room, he groaned and pulled a pillow up over his head, wondering if he could steal a few more hours… But he finally relented and tossed the pillow aside, getting to his feet and stretching his long limbs.

He acted out his usual routine as he always did, and he even wrote a letter to his sister, which he had meant to do last night, but the book lingered in his mind. What could the message mean? Was it important, or would he just get treated like a fool for reporting it, like the last time he’d found something interesting in a book?

Last time, after all, it had turned out to be nothing more than a story, hidden in little notes throughout the tome. He had thought he found some grand discovery, until he realized it was only a bored monk’s moral faerie-tale, a lot like that story about the family of mice. Still, it was a nice story, and that was something, right?

Besides, he could relate. Copying things all day and night got skull-splittingly boring, and sometimes one wanted to insert something interesting for a future reader to find, if not just to add a personal touch. Zac had done it more than a few times, himself.

At any rate, he had other work to do, so the book could wait. If he didn’t finish at least some of the inscriptions in that tomb today, Eustace would no doubt have some kind of punishment in store. Plus, the orders supposedly were coming from someone higher up.

Why he had to go into a tomb was beyond him, though… He frowned at the very idea, shuddering.

Lost in thought, he walked to the castle like a golem, never having to think where he was headed. All around him, the city began to come alive with the morning. People threw open windows, town criers began to shout mundane news, and merchants started hawking their wares.

When he arrived at the castle, however, he snapped out of his trance and stopped in his tracks, surprised by the gathering he saw in the great hall.

In the center of the room, a long, red carpet led one’s eyes toward the two thrones, each of which was gilded in gold and decorated with designs of lion heads. They sat upon an elevated pedestal that looked down at the subjects of the King and Queen. On either side of these thrones were two more royal chairs, one for the Prince and one for the Princess. Tall pillars lined the room, on which were mounted lit torches.

Royal guards clad in shimmering red, gold, and silver armor stood on either side of each pillar, making a sizable force. They held spears at the ready, trying not to mind the quiet gathering of castle workers on the sidelines.

The young clerk heard someone hiss his name: “Zac!”

The speaker turned out to be a colorfully-clothed man with shaggy, dark brown hair and a thick, unkempt stubble that bordered on a beard. Zac knew him: Roald, the royal cupbearer.

Roald stood with a small gang of the castle workers who had seen the guests and gathered away from the carpet to watch, and now he gestured wildly for Zac to join them. The clerk nearly tripped over himself in his haste to approach his motley coworkers when one of the royal guards shot him a look.

Flora, Roald, Jon, Eustace, and even Edward – the castle healer – were all there, and Zac slipped into the crowd and tried to blend in. He didn’t manage that too effectively, however, as he stood a head or more taller than everyone else.

Are those—?” Zac started quietly, only to be cut off by Eustace.

Yes,” he said with disdain. “Witch hunters.”

And Templars,” Jon murmured under his breath, with far more respect and a hint of awe.

And so they were. Standing before the elevated thrones of King and Queen Artorius were eight strangers clad in armor unlike any the simple castle workers had ever seen. Four wore armor of solid black, decorated with the triple bars of the Imperial Inquisition, while the other four wore still more elaborate panoplies of silver, gold, and red, all spangled in the four-pointed star of the goddess Astra Aeterna.

Some carried helms under their arms, and all were armed to the teeth with a sword, an axe, a mace, or some other intricate weapon of choice – or more than one. Whatever smith forged their gear was a master of their craft.

The assorted warriors ranged from muscular to lithe and athletic, particularly with their suits of armor highlighting their different builds… And Zac couldn’t help but notice that three of the figures were women, and one of the men was a foreigner from the Far South, with skin nearly as dark an ebony as his Inquisition attire – which was all the more noticeable, as his outfit left much of his tattooed skin bare, unlike the armor of his companions.

To Zac’s surprise, some of the Inquisitors had chosen not to remove their helms – an action that could easily be seen as disrespectful, especially toward royalty. Though from where he stood, Zac could see none of their faces either way.

The handsome and blue-eyed King Rikard stroked his short, and slightly greying, bright red beard as he glanced between the pair of figures who seemed to be the highest ranking of the two orders. Rikard was not a man easily impressed, which was unsurprising, considering his own appearance: he currently wore a suit of highly decorated armor bearing the golden lion of Artorius, with a great fur around his shoulders and a golden, bejeweled crown over his heavy, brooding, noble brow…

And yet Zac barely paid him heed, at least in the face of Rikard’s daughter. The Arcadian couldn’t take his eyes off Princess Amanda Artorius, no matter how hard he tried. She was tall, athletic, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned, with flowing blonde hair and so striking a face that, for a moment, all Zac could do was look at her.

You say you have reason to believe there may be a cultist presence in our city,” said Rikard, not seeming at all intimidated to be in the presence of representatives from some of the Empire’s most important orders. “However, we have no indication of such.”

Eleven days ago, Sir Sandor of Illikon received word that someone had witnessed an act of black magic,” said the tallest Templar present, a strikingly handsome man with short-cropped, blond hair. He was clad in unusual armor, fashioned mostly of red metal, with golden scale-mail. “While we’re all very aware that most reports of black magic are nothing but superstition, I still recommend caution. The Templar have reason to believe the Hidden may have an interest in this city.”

Rikard narrowed his eyes. “Continue.”

According to some accounts, during the reign of Ildrius, one of his Mage-Lords tried to conquer this island, long ago. Although they didn’t establish a city, rumor has it that they still had a holdout here, a kind of safe haven… and this is where some of Ildrius’s supporters fled after his downfall.”

Rumors, Captain Randal?” answered Rikard, leaning back in his throne and knitting his fingers before him. “The Knights Templar come to me dabbling in ‘rumors?’”

It’s more than rumors, your Grace,” said another of the Inquisitors: one of the armored ones who had chosen to remove his helm, revealing a mustached face, dark hair, and a skin tone that hinted of possible partial Southron descent. “Did your own men not have trouble with the elves on this island, only five days past?”

Silence fell across the room. The tallest of the strangers, a towering Inquisitor fully encased in black armor, gave a low whistle at his companion’s ability to quiet the entire great hall.

The disrespect of these Inquisitors won them a fiery glance from the young, handsome, and bold Prince Leonidas Artorius, sitting in a smaller throne by his father’s side. The Prince nearly started up out of his seat. Rikard quickly raised a hand, which made Leonidas freeze with a scowl, reluctantly sinking back into his throne. His armor clinked as he moved, and he pointedly readjusted his blood red tabard so that the golden lion emblem on his chest was not wrinkled.

You are correct, Inquisitor Capulet,” said the King. “The elves contacted us with a simple message: Men came to their lands searching for something that they claimed the elves took from them long ago. They would not say whether it was true, but they made plain their determination to kill any other man who sets foot in their territory.”

And these men were not your own,” said the Templar Captain.

No. We know nothing of who they were.”

They could very well be connected to the Hidden and these claims of dark magic that have reached our ears,” Inquisitor Capulet put in. “We offer you nothing but our aid, your Grace, not hindrance. And we guarantee that we will cooperate fully with your orders while in your city. We are, after all, each a part of the same Empire.”

The Imperial orders, namely your own,” Rikard answered slowly, as his eyes passed over all the Templars and Inquisitors present, “have their ways of asserting themselves in Artorius that we do not appreciate. The last time Inquisitors set foot on this island, they came from Illikon, making sure we were not harboring magi that escaped from a cult… as if Artorius would do such a thing.”

The King’s gaze turned to the tallest Inquisitor again, who merely shrugged. His face was unreadable under his full-face mask.

I’m sorry, your Grace,” said the tall Inquisitor, in a smooth voice. “Orders are orders. I meant no disrespect.”

You never seem to mean disrespect, Blackburn, yet your persistently casual behavior makes us wonder if you take anything seriously,” Rikard almost snapped, but his calm and kingly demeanor soon returned as he looked at Inquisitor Capulet and the muscular blond Templar, Captain Randal, once more.

Rikard rose to his feet, standing tall and strong. His family stood as he did – and every royal guard knelt on one knee. Zac and his fellow workers instantly scrambled to do the same, and soon everyone knelt, even the Templars and Inquisitors.

We invite you to stay in Artorius,” said Rikard, giving a sweeping gesture with one hand. “And though we may… disagree, at times, with the behavior of both your orders, we are not ungracious hosts. You may stay in our castle, and we shall provide you with the best of accommodations. Tonight, we feast in your honor. We trust your journey was a long one?”

Captain Randal kept his head bowed as he answered, “It was, your Grace. We sailed from Templaria.”

Cautiously, Zac lifted his head enough to watch the newcomers. With their backs turned, it was still impossible to make out much of their faces, but he was starting to at least familiarize himself with a few of their names. And if Rikard was inviting them to stay in the castle, he doubted this was the last he’d be seeing of any of them.

Then you must rest well during your stay. Come, we shall personally accompany you to what are to be your chambers, and we shall further discuss our troubles.”

Zac exchanged a look with Jon and then with Roald and Flora, but no one spoke.

You are most kind, your Grace,” said Captain Randal, as everyone got to their feet. Rikard merely smiled and gestured for them to follow him as he led the way out of the room, the Templars and Inquisitors all following him. Zac and his fellows quickly got back to their feet as the numerous royal guards left as well, flanking the royals.

Eustace shook his head. “Ridiculous. We don’t need a bunch of black-clad witch-hunters mucking up our business. These folk from the mainland do nothing but get in the way!”

Again, Zac and Jon exchanged looks. Flora noticed and frowned at Eustace, while Roald gave a slight laugh, but Eustace did not seem to care about any of it.

Don’t let these meddlers distract you. There’s work to be done! Now go!” he motioned them off.

The workers dispersed silently as they went off to their assorted duties, even if it was clear each one of them – save perhaps for Zac – was ready to start thinking aloud regarding the arrival of the Imperial officials. Jon gave Zac a nod before he disappeared into a castle hall, and Flora hurried off after the castle’s new guests. Edward headed back toward the castle temple, and Eustace left to do whatever it was that he did.

Roald trudged along after Zac’s long strides, hurrying to catch up and try to meet the much taller man’s pace.

So, hey,” he said, his blue eyes a bit dull from what Zac figured was another hangover, “where were you last night? You missed some good drinking.”

I was busy,” Zac replied with a shrug.

Eustace went around advertising that you were the only one willing to do that job in the tombs and that the rest of us are all useless,” said Roald. His tone wasn’t accusatory, teasing, annoyed, or anything, really. When he wasn’t acting like an idiot, he was usually just pointing something out. “I guess you saved us again, Zac.”

Saved you from what? Actually having to work?”

Roald’s response was simple and honest, “Yeah.”

Well, glad I could rescue you,” Zac said, giving him a pat on the shoulder. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I’d better go get to work in those tombs.”

Don’t get eaten by something,” Roald said as Zac left.

The Arcadian sighed and said while walking off, “That’s super, Roald. Thanks for making me think about that.”

Anytime,” Roald called after him, as borderline monotone and unreadable as ever.


With everyone so full of gossip from the Inquisitors and Templars, and others running around trying to make them comfortable and keep an eye on them, Zac found no opportunities to talk to anyone about the book – except for Roald, who always seemed to be lingering about, but he would probably have more luck trying to explain the tome to a potted plant.

Why everyone was so concerned about Imperial officials showing up, Zac wasn’t sure. He knew the people of Artorius liked to keep to themselves, and often almost considered themselves independent from the Empire at large, but this was getting a little ridiculous, or at least Zac thought so. They were here to help. Right?

Granted, the very idea of magic was completely ridiculous to most people, like Eustace had said, so he shouldn’t be all that surprised. Even Zac occasionally felt skeptical about that whole idea, and he’d read legends about it for pretty much his entire life.

So he focused on heading down to the tomb instead. From his desk, he gathered a quill and found an empty book into which he could copy everything, and he brought some spare parchment for notes, along with several inkwells. Stuffing everything into his bag, he slung it across his chest again, about to set out when he stopped.

Behind him, he heard someone scratching around in some of the books, and Zac sat up to look over his shoulder. He saw Edward rifling through a few things, though the doctor looked up when he felt Zac’s gaze on him and gave a sheepish little grin.

Edward looked like a man born to be a healer, and this was only aided by his thick, upper-class Artorian accent. His face conveyed a sense of caring, and he always kept up his appearance: flowing dark hair, blue eyes, and a clean-shaven, nobly featured face. He wasn’t the kind of person to look sheepish often, so this was a rare occasion.

Sorry,” he said. “I think something of mine got misplaced and sent here by mistake.”

Yeah?” Zac replied. “What is it? Because, believe it or not,” he added with a smile, “there is kind of a method to my madness, I mean – I could probably find it in all this junk. It’s really no problem.”

No, no, that’s perfectly alright,” Edward said hastily, trying to wave Zac off. “I actually don’t think it’s here. Perhaps I made a mistake.” He gave a sudden smile and said, “I should get back to my duties. Thank you, Zacynthos.”

With that, he left as abruptly as he had appeared, darting over to the stairs and trotting up them. Zac just stood there and watch him go, frowning slightly before he began to head for the stairs, himself…

Only to hear someone else descending them. Zac couldn’t help but assume it was Roald, probably looking to come and ramble at him about something or another.

But someone very different emerged from the staircase. One of the Templars from the audience with the King appeared, though he was decidedly one of the less impressive ones, at least as Templars went. He looked almost like someone Zac would meet in Artorius: brown hair, blue eyes, average height, unenthusiastic expression… All that was different was the shimmering silver and gold armor, highlighted in red and decorated in the stars of Astra.

The man’s sharp blue eyes locked onto Zac’s face instantly, like a hawk ready to strike. He didn’t seem to be the kind of man whose time one should waste, so Zac cleared his throat, straightening his tunic again with one hand.

Hi,” he said quickly and with a smile. “What can, uh… What can I do for you – sir?” He had no idea what the correct manner of address was for a Templar, or if there even was one, but he assumed this man was at least noble by birth, if nothing else.

You’re the clerk, right?” said the Templar, lacking the grace of manner that the Captain Randal fellow from the audience had shown. “Maybe you can help me find something. Unless you don’t know where things are around here?”

Oh, no, I know where stuff is. That’s kind of what I do. Well, partially, I mean. But anyway, uh, what’re you looking for?” he offered, giving a friendly smile. “This – this isn’t really the castle library, but, y’know, this is kind of the ‘work in progress’ section.”

I figured. So, any history books down here? Maybe history of this city, in particular, or the landscape?”

Zac’s mind crashed to a halt, and he couldn’t help but narrow his eyes in thought for a moment before he focused again. “No… no, not that I can remember. Why?”

He had half a mind to ask if the Templars knew something that even King Rikard didn’t, or if they wanted to confirm some even stranger suspicions, but he wasn’t sure he should let off the fact that he had been present at their audience with the King.

The Templar shook his head. “Nevermind, it’s not important. I shouldn’t have asked. I’ll leave you to your work.”

Perhaps even more abruptly than Edward had left, the Templar turned on his heel and strode off. He left Zac standing there, a bit stunned, confused, and maybe slightly disturbed. Silence quickly fell upon the dismal little room once more.


Zac set out for the tomb, undisturbed by anyone else as he departed from the castle. He had been to the temple of Zeus before: even if he prayed to Astra Aeterna, the same goddess as the Templars upheld, he didn’t want to spurn the other gods. He’d read all sorts of stories about their wrath – including more than a few from his own homeland.

The day was beautiful and sunlit, but the sky steadily turned ominous as he walked. Around him, the streets began to clear out as everyone prepared for the coming rain. Overhead, thick clouds rolled in all too swiftly, gathering threateningly while humidity filled the air.

By the time he rounded the last corner toward the temple, a blanket of clouds covered every inch of blue in the sky. The air smelled like rain, and Zac sighed, wishing he’d brought his cloak. Thunder rolled low and deep off in the distance, carrying toward him like the sound of a thousand galloping riders in a charge and shaking the very earth under his feet.

A flash of purple-white lightning licking across the sky made Zac stop in his tracks, just as he reached the staircase leading up to the temple of Zeus. For a moment, the clerk stared up at the columns, wondering if this storm was some kind of sign, but he quickly dismissed it as paranoia – or tried to.

Absently singing to himself under his breath in an attempt to relieve some of the tension he felt, Zac climbed the stairs in a few long strides, moving between the massive pillars and pushing open one of the two huge wooden doors as quietly as he could, sticking his head in to peer around.

Everything seemed still. It wasn’t a time of worship at the moment, but he exchanged greetings and smiles with a few priests, relaying to them his assignment and receiving directions to the tomb just as he heard the quiet patter of rain outside.

His footsteps echoed so loudly in the vast, open temple that he felt awkward to be the only one doing much moving around. Looking at his surroundings, he saw plenty of open space and a positively giant statue of Zeus on the opposite side of the hall. The god was seated in a massive throne, wearing a simple toga fastened by a brooch bearing the emblem of a lightning bolt. The expression on his bearded face was as hard as the stone from which it was chiseled.

Zac approached a door off to one side of the temple, which he had been told led into the tombs. It was a small room that looked like some kind of closet, lit by one courtesy torch provided for anyone entering. At his feet, he saw a trapdoor that looked like it hadn’t been opened in quite some time.

This temple didn’t have the fanciest catacombs. In fact, they were all but condemned, being so full that no one could be buried there anymore. No one really ventured down into their dusty depths – no one had any reason or desire to set foot in such a wretched place.

Many of the corpses were ancient, and still more were unmarked, so their nature was long forgotten. Most people assumed they were the corpses of those who had built some temple to an unknown god before the land was conquered and turned to Zeus. Zac swallowed, taking the torch in one hand and lifting the trapdoor open, climbing down.

He dropped down into a truly horrific place. Scents of dust and decay immediately assaulted his nostrils, and he could hear rats scuffling around in alarm at his sudden arrival. Wrinkling his nose, Zac got moving, looking around for the inscriptions he was supposed to copy.

Old stone surrounded him on all sides, full of far too many slots holding old bodies. Zac could feel the color drain from his face whenever he glanced to one side and saw a skeleton. Some had been disturbed for whatever reason, their rotting limbs scattered around and their jawless skulls staring at him with empty sockets, most of the teeth decayed and long gone. Still others had a twisted hand hanging from their slot, as if someone had come through and poked around at them in morbid curiosity, disturbing their already questionable slumber.

For a moment, Zac seriously considered turning back. But again he steeled himself, taking a step forward and eventually setting off at a slow, cautious walk. Everything was still as the grave – and with good reason. The only things to currently inhabit the catacombs were himself, the corpses, and the occasional rat or mouse… though what they lived on down here, he really had no idea.

The illumination around him shook as his hand that carried the torch trembled, and he took a deep breath, trying to steady himself as he finally found an inscription. Breathing a sigh, he slid the torch into an empty mount on the wall, reaching into his bag and fishing out his supplies. This was going to be a long day.


Zac copied for hours, moving deeper into the catacombs. As he went, he quickly realized something: these tombs really were ancient, and perhaps far more so than anyone had ever believed. In fact, none of the people in them had even been alive when the city of Artorius was founded. Many inscriptions had dedications and words of praise to Kronos, an ancient Titan god and Zeus’s father. So the temple of Zeus was built atop an ancient temple of Kronos… Ironic, Zac thought.

He had almost filled half a book of inscriptions, and his eyes were starting to run together, as he finally entered into another section of the crypt. Here, there were no simple slots for skeletons; these were family tombs, bearing the crests of various noble houses. Zac rubbed his tired eyes and sighed. He had no idea how long he had been working, but it must have been several hours, and he was starting to get exhausted.

Still he pushed on, deciding it would be best to at least look around in a few of the noble family tombs before he called it a night. He copied inscriptions on a few before he came to an oddity: as he rounded one corner, he hit a dead end, whereas every other short hallway had led to a clearly demarcated family burial place.

But there, etched into the wall, was an image of a noble crest. Covered as it was in dust, Zac could barely even make it out – until he realized it was also desecrated, parts of it broken off the wall to ruin the painting and make it indiscernible. Blinking in surprise, he glanced down at the face of the sarcophagus lying underneath it.

The face was gone. Someone had smashed in the mask of this peacefully resting noble with his hands crossed over his chest and the hilt of his sword, wrecking the lovely stone statue over his grave. Zac felt a chill run up his spine. No one should want to defile the resting place of the dead, no matter how old it was.

On either side of him was nothing but the same grey stone, halfway turned a rotten shade of green from mold. There were no slots in these walls – this section was reserved for this nobleman and this nobleman alone, whoever he was. Maybe he was someone special and everyone just forgot.

Sliding the torch into another mount in the wall nearby, Zac stepped forward to investigate the crest. He moved around the sarcophagus to reach the wall and scratched at some of the dust and mold, trying to get a better impression of the image…

Something clicked. Zac froze – and then everything fell away.

The very ground shifted, and a deep boom split the silence of the tomb. The wall before him slid aside, and the floor under his feet seemed to drop out. Before he could catch himself, Zac fell forward and tumbled into the darkness with a yelp.

The light of his torch quickly disappeared as he kept falling forward, unable to catch himself on the jagged walls that cut at his fingers. The floor kept beating at him – stairs, apparently, though some incredibly steep ones – and he could do nothing to stop himself before he suddenly took another drop.

He landed hard on the stone floor, the breath knocked from his lungs. Zac coughed and gasped, groaning as he lay there for a moment, his entire body aching. When he lifted his head and looked around, he could see nothing in the total darkness.

Zac didn’t move an inch, panting frantically, feeling sweat run down his brow as his heart nearly pounded its way out of his chest, like some terrified animal trying to escape. Where was he? What had just happened? Was this some secret passage?

Light.

Before him, stretching out over a long room, braziers began to burst alight of their own accord, and Zac started with another yelp.

He now looked out across a massive, open chamber lined with columns. It bore little in common with the breathtaking grandeur of the temple to Zeus he’d just left behind, but it held some strange sense of majesty… the majesty of a world long lost. It was like some twisted, squat corruption of a temple’s beauty, hidden in dust and bones, with short columns and etchings everywhere.

Zac lay there for a moment longer, jaw slack, staring in wonderment. Slowly, he got to his feet, brushing himself off. The fall had not been as bad as he had first imagined, and he only had a few bumps and bruises to show for it.

But he hesitated to move forward. First, he looked behind him, wanting to escape – but he saw a tall ledge, far too tall for him or anyone else to ascend, staring back at him. Zac swallowed and turned in a circle, looking for a way out… but he saw none.

He was trapped.

Zac tried not to panic, focusing instead on searching for another way out. The Arcadian took a step forward, looking in every direction as he stumbled into the newfound chamber. Strange murals lined the walls, and strange writings as well. Blazing braziers rested at the foot of each pillar on either side of the path he now walked, down the center of the room.

Although he expected the smoke from the braziers to point his attention to some kind of ancient ventilation system, and possibly even a way out, he realized… they weren’t emitting any smoke. In fact, they weren’t emitting anything but light. They didn’t even let off heat waves to knock dust from the relatively low ceiling. Etched onto the front of each brazier, he saw the same rune – one he didn’t recognize. Each rune glowed the same red-hot color as the fire itself, yet the runes didn’t burn, either.

Everything in the chamber caught his eye and fascinated him, but nothing held his attention like the object at the other end of the room. Zac walked toward it slowly, cautiously, wondering if something could lead him to a way out of here or if he would find some other hidden switch.

It was an altar. Runes had been drawn all around it, foreign symbols, things Zac didn’t know – and if anyone should recognize them, it would be the one person who had read every book in Artorius’s castle. But these were unfamiliar, as were the other symbols on the altar itself.

He stopped before it, furrowing his brow at what he saw there.

It was a stone. A strange, dark stone, like a perfect piece of obsidian, cut to perfection and bearing yet another symbol he had never seen before. It just sat there, in the middle of this altar, collecting dust like everything else in the gods-forsaken chamber. Whatever the stone was, it was impressive for its perfect, solid black sheen – and for the fact that it was nearly the size of his hand.

Huh,” Zac mused aloud as he looked at it, lowering his eyes level with the altar to take a closer gander. It… was just a rock. A weird, black rock very deliberately made and put there, but still just a rock. Zac reached out to pick it up and examine it.

The moment his hand touched its surface, everything changed.

All at once, he was both blinded by light and paralyzed by an unknown force. Against his own volition, his hand clamped onto the stone like a vice, clutching it so hard its harsh edges began to cut into his skin. Everything lit in a glow of nightmare purple, emanating from the stone, washing over the altar, the pillars, Zac’s face. The glow began to spread, feeding into the runes on the altar. It bled into those on the floor like some infection spreading its tendrils across the room, until it touched every inch of it, filling the symbols carved everywhere – the altar, the floor, the walls, the pillars, and even the ceiling.

Zac couldn’t move. His entire body was locked up. He stood there, rigid, shaking slightly, his hand gripping the stone, unable to release it. His thoughts were an incoherent blur that he couldn’t even understand, and his jaw went slack.

Whereas before he felt he would go blind from the shock of light, he felt now that he would go blind from the darkness invading his vision. It crept over his eyes like the tentacles of a forgotten shadow god, reaching forth from an unknown depth to pull all his senses away from him.

He couldn’t hear anything, losing the sound of the pounding in his ears. He couldn’t see, his eyes slowly rolling back into his head. He could barely feel, the sensation of his sweat and his hand gripping the stone dissipating into numbness. His own beating heart thudding in his chest felt foreign and far away…

Something crept into him. It wasn’t his own terror, for that was well formed and anchored deep within his being. This was something else, something sinister, something not his own – something that didn’t belong there. It was unlike anything Zac had ever felt, and had he been capable of thought, he would have hoped he would never feel anything like it again.

A shock of energy shot up his arm, as if coming from the stone. It was harsh at first, sending a short spike of pain into his limb, but still he was paralyzed. Then came another feeling, something flowing into him that made his skin crawl. His arm tingled, the hairs standing on end – the sensation crept up his arm, leaving chills and pain in its wake. He could sense every inch affected by it as it moved forward, like some creature, some angry spirit under his skin, using his arm as a path to enter into his body.

The sensation grew worse. It reached his shoulder and, in one sudden explosion, spread through his entire chest and lanced up into his skull, filling every inch of him and pulsing to his other limbs like ice in his veins. It was not quite pain, and certainly not in the physical sense, but it was… a feeling, an awareness that it was happening, a strange cold across his body that made his entire being almost feel heavier than it should. It was like nothing he could describe.

He stood there motionless, unable to make a sound, his eyes fluttering and halfway rolled back into his skull, his jaw ever so slightly slack. His bleeding hand still gripped the black stone as if his life depended on it, dripping blood onto the empty altar. The violet glow in the runes around him intensified, and though his eyes were unable to see it, his body could feel their power increasing…

And, all at once, it ended.

A huge breath escaped his lungs, but Zac still didn’t move… until he suddenly fell flat on his back, stiff as a board and completely unconscious.

His hand still clenched the black stone.