“We cannot stay here,” Mh'repha told them. “The Greywraith lost the day, but if – as I am certain – they were trying to assassinate us all, they will not give up this easily. I would give them a week at most before they can return with reinforcements; less if they have some way of magical communication.” With Chamh'rov unconscious and all the hunters dead, Mh'repha had become the senior member of their research party, as the one Sophromh' had granted his quest to.
“What I don't understand is why we are still alive,” Tam added. “They did not lose – the rest of them ran when all of us were incapacitated.”
“They ran because they had just thrown a bomb,” Mh'repha countered. “And they believed us all dead, so they did not return. We got bloody lucky back there – we should all be dead.”
“And yet we fear their reinforcements? I must confess I don't follow your reasoning there.” Mh'arriimh', feeling out of place without either combat or travel experience, had kept quite silent until now.
“To be precise, we fear their follow-up troop,” Mh'repha answered. “Remember our original purpose here: We wanted to examine a ruined complex that had recently been discovered, and we had to do so before the Greywraith did. That was the purpose of our secrecy – we had to keep it all hidden from their spies.
“For nothing, apparently,” she added. “Now the Greywraith sent their assassins to wait for us, and they believe us dead. Their next step will be to ready their own expedition, now that we are out of the way.
“The race is on. The first move has been made, its knowledge now open. They should have won this round, but a few of our pieces are left. It is left to us to close the match in our favor.” She paused. “Mh'asharra, I am beginning to talk like Phamh'rir.” She smiled involuntarily; the first time since the bleak events of the day before.
“Wait.” Tam cautioned. “How sure are you that the expedition has yet to come?”
“How do you mean?” Mh'arriimh' asked.
“The Greywraith had us, and they knew it. From beginning to end, their plan has progressed smoothly as anything – our journey to Bhardrow, finding a ship, travelling all the way to this river bend. They obviously chose this place for their attack: It is just about the farthest we can go from our home city and reinforcements without entering the cave. If we died here, it would be months before our fate was discovered.
“So why plan only this far? If they knew we would die, would they not send their expedition at the same time as their assassins?
“Would they not send a single group for both, even?”
There was silence for a while as they considered the possibility. Mh'arriimh' was first to speak.
“Regardless, we are going to encounter the Greywraith one way or another once we are in that cavern. If we wanted to avoid tussling with them, we shouldn't have gone in the first place.” It sounded like an uncharacteristic thing for the slim researcher to say, and she looked regretfully at Chamh'rov. With the aid of some new herbs gathered from the surroundings, Mh'repha had been able to rouse him from his coma, but he was still very weak and hardly communicative.
There was another uncomfortable silence. Tam broke it this time.
“And should we?” He uttered the thought that had apparently been on Mh'arriimh's mind as well.
“Look at us. In our very first battle against these hunters, we lost our fighters and nearly all died. Now our only survivors are either researchers or injured, and practically unable to hold our own in another battle. If we go into this cavern, do we not go in to die?” Tam felt uncomfortably self-conscious and even cowardly, but it needed to be said.
“You are forgetting what we were up against, Tam,” Mh'repha said. “We were badly outnumbered, and we were ambushed – and yet we survived, and the Greywraith lost more than we did.”
“It was not much of an ambush after I did the trick with the light,” Tam commented.
“And neither will it be when you do it the next time,” Mh'repha grinned. “You will have plenty of time to prepare another crystal. My point is that we stand more of a chance than you realize. For once, their group has been decimated as much as we have. For another, we truly have the advantage of surprise this time: If they believed us still alive, they would have come back to finish us off.
“And if the caverns really do hold the secrets we hope to gather from them, then we must not allow the Greywraith to reach them. Either the ruins hold unspeakable power, and they will use it for their own purposes and conquer us all. Or they hold the truth that Zadal-Ihrno was slain for trying to unravel – and then we must assume that they will try to destroy it. That cannot happen.”
Mh'arriimh' added, “I want to know the truth.”
“And so do I,” Mh'repha said. “I have to see. We cannot afford to lose this expedition,” she concluded.
Tam hesitated a while. And so do I. Zadal was right about me – I would risk everything to find out. He looked at his three companions. And I want to help them unlock the secret of their history as well. And, with a look at Mh'repha, and I want to go wherever she goes, too.
“Curiosity can conquer any fear,” he said with a smile. “I am with you. Let us go!”
The journey to the entrance was amazingly short: Tam was right, the Greywraith really had planned the place of their attack exceedingly well, barely a mile from the cavern they wanted to enter. And I'll bet that this is where they went right afterward, possibly not even stopping to treat their wounds yet, he mused.
And at last, the entrance stood before them.
It was smaller and less imposing than Tam had expected. For some reason, he had imagined the old Vahnatai City to be a magnificent complex, built into the side of a mountain like the city of the Claw, or a tremendous set of tall marble buildings, glittering like a jewel on the horizon.
Instead, what they found was a low hill, barely high enough to be a burial mound, surrounded by a few stray trees and a ring of auspiciously arranged tall stones. Are they magical? Tam wondered, just before Mh'repha asked him the same question. He realized that he was finally about to do the job he had been meant to perform on this journey: He concentrated for a while, muttering the formulas for arcane analysis. After a minute, he opened his eyes.
“Not particularly,” he told them. “They do carry some weak background aura, but that may well just residue from the powerful magic that was performed here, or the mages who entered and left the place.
“I believe they were left here only to mark the place, not to fulfill any function.” He went closer.
“Wait!” he looked at the socket of one of the pillars. “This one has been hit with spells rather frequently. And---” he touched the base of the pillar for a moment, and a tiny mechanism seemed to come alive inside it.
“I do believe that's a lock. Not very secure, probably just enough to keep the local wildlife out. At any rate, it's useless now.” He gestured at the doorway that was set into the side of the hill. It was wide open, revealing the yawning darkness beneath. The doors lay shattered on either side of the opening; the stones of the frame lay scattered as well.
“The Greywraith must have blown it open,” Mh'arriimh' commented. Chamh'rov was leaning on her shoulder.
“So that part at least is cleared up,” Tam responded.
“Getting cold feet?” Mh'repha teased the young Vahnatai. “We can still turn back now...”
Tam just laughed. “I'm not scared. Come on!” and walked through the opening into the darkness ahead, waiting for them to follow. But as he did, he felt a cold blast of air come from the mouth of the cave, and felt chilled to his very heart. He ignited a sphere of light, and they disappeared into the ancient ruins.