This new harsh reality, the brutal truth of who she really was did bring the unwanted tears. Jueneva sunk back to the ground, hugging her knees into her chest and buried her face. Never had she felt so naked, desperate and alone. She wept, finally releasing the wracking sobs bottled up inside. For a long time, she wrestled with the feeling of loss and grief for her mother and the rest of her family.
The storm gained strength outside. Gusts of icy rain and snow flurries whistled in through the large hole in the roof. The gloomy daylight had also dimmed significantly. She had no provisions, only mud-soaked clothes on her small frame and no real sense of where she was. It left little doubt that the time had come for action and decisions. Trying to recapture the grim resolve she had before entering the portal, she picked herself up and took a more concerted effort at looking around.
However, there was nothing new of the indoor courtyard than what she noted before, so she walked hesitantly to the pair of barred doors. She considered the rusted metal brackets that held twin thick wooden boards, but she could not guess to what its true purpose was. It was a flimsy barrier at best and could not pose any serious obstacle to anyone wanting to get into the courtyard. With little effort, she lifted the boards off and inched the doors barely open.
A knock, soft and from beyond the door, froze her to the spot. It was not done with force, but with purpose.
Another knock floated to her ears, this time echoing from much deeper inside the building. Another pair of similar knocks followed close behind the first. A burst of wind howled through the hole again, the sound deafening as she stood in the prior silence. Then all grew quiet once again.
On the other side, she could not see much detail or form past a few feet. Soft twilight filtered in from snow-capped skylights on the roof and barely outlined what appeared to be a long rectangular room.
Stay in the courtyard, freeze to death in the chill or walk into the gloom and die in the pitch dark?
She moaned internally at her dilemma, determined to not voice her fear aloud, not allowing the terror to become real. A sudden burst of wind coiled around her like a snake, forcing her decision. Slipping in, she snapped the pair of doors tight behind her.
To her shock, as she blinked her eyes rapidly, the room brightened. Yet the light source was not external. The chamber remained unlit except for the skylights along the borders of the room. The features inside were dotted in tiny gray beads. The chamber mostly empty remained shrouded by night, yet the beads outlined everything. Her new darksight had to stem from her Dirithi heritage!
Coming to Akkei Maliss must have unlocked the fierce beast within her blood. Jueneva hoped she could find other advantages. Her instincts told her she would need every ounce of human and dragon strength she had to survive here.
Ten feet into the room, she ran her hands along an ornate banister and realized that the empty center of the rectangular room was an open floor. She could make out at least three more floors below her. These ruins were immense and were once elaborate.
Do I dare hope for food somewhere secured away? I need to at least find a place to lay down and rest, she thought. Her strength waned as her stomach growled.
She walked along the passage bordering the open floor, finding a total of three passages. The one leading to the doorway, the other two in opposite west and east directions. The air remained chill in the hall but at least it was free of the outside elements. When she stepped into the eastern passage, the knock came to her again. It floated down the hall towards her. The hall ended ahead in a t-section. The knock repeated from the right hallway.
The knocks repeated. Light rapping against hollow wood. Knock… Knock… Knock….
She crept slowly in the shadows, making her way toward the source. If she were to stay inside, she had to be sure the area was safe before allowing herself to close her eyes and rest. Kneeling down close to the corner, she peeked around the wall. Hanging on thick cords of rope, several men’s corpses were swinging slowly from side to side, their boots occasionally taping against the hallway. Her hand shot up to seal her squeals from escaping. The men were all in ragged and bloody uniforms, their hands bound behind their backs, their heads lolling to one side. As she studied them, a growing orange light grew at the other end of the hall. It was approaching her from the other side of the line of bodies. In the bright light now, more than a dozen victims were swinging from a square ceiling beam.
Jueneva heard heavy boots now, foot thuds heavy and marching towards her. She ducked back around the corner, bracing her back against the wall. Her hands still pressing tight against her lips.
What fresh hell have I plunged myself into?
The march of the lone pair of boots came to a sudden stop, less than a dozen feet away. The orange light flickered and waved, casting irregular shadows along the hall. Above the crackle and popping sounds of a fire, she made out the creaks of rope, the tapping of more boots. Whoever had the fire had walked through the hanging forms and intentionally forced more of them to swing.
Her terror caused massive trembles up and down her limbs but still, she had to know, had to see what was happening right beside her. She again knelt slowly to get as close to the ground as possible to dip down and catch a glimpse.
A disembodied pair of legs, shrouded in glowing orange and white flames, stood before the swinging men. The boots were facing the victims. Spots on their uniforms were burning where they were pushed.
Her jaw dropped as her hands fell to her sides. Her eyesight started to tunnel as she was about to swoon, when a floating, rotting skull wreathed with more fire appeared above the legs. It twisted to face her. Its jaws were opened in a permanent scream. It roared, “YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE!”
Instead of collapsing, her legs snapped tight and her body launched forward, her feet instinctively beating a mad dash away down the other hallway. She dared not to look behind her to see if it gave chase.
The frantic girl did not stop until her breath rasped in and out of her chest in burning gulps of air. She was heaving and weeping again resting on her hands and knees. The darkness in this area was reassuring though as she knew the Burning Man was not near. She tried to control her tears but could not help the squeals and moans she made.
Now hopelessly lost in these haunted ruins, she despaired if she would be safe ever again.
Her darksight revealed she was in an open, sparse room. It was furnished with only a wobbly wooden square table and one stone bench. The concrete walls were marked with more of the miniature runes but nothing else.
Completely exhausted, surrendering to whatever might find her, Jueneva climbed onto the table. She chose to sleep here versus the cold stone floor. Her ankles and feet hung over the end, but she slipped regardless into dreamless sleep immediately.