They took the stairs slowly, Arthur leading the way. He had agreed to do so because of his visual upgrade and spear, making use of the butt of the weapon to test each step as he crept up. He studiously ignored Jan’s mutter about being overly cautious, carefully testing each step for pressure plates and eyeing the walls on the for murder holes and other traps. Yet there was nothing; the ascent to the first floor was peaceful.
Standing at the door that would open to the first floor, with stairs leading further up, he pushed at it. The plain door gave way with little effort, sliding open a little with only a gentle hiss and grind. He peered within, spotting nothing in the sliver of space offered, hearing nothing as he strained his ears. Arthur waved the team down.
After a moment, no longer under pressure, the door swung back shut as counterweights pulled it close. Eyes narrowing in suspicion, Arthur backed off halfway down the stairs before turning to the rest of the group.
“We need something to block the door from closing,” Arthur said.
Fishing into the rubble, Uswah came up with a pair of wood blocks.
“Do we have to go in this one?” Sharmila said dubiously.
“I don’t want to get pincered,” Arthur said.
Jan nodded. “He’s not wrong. Surprisingly.”
Arthur flashed a tight smile at her.
“Okay, so . . .” Tilting his head from side-to-side, he waited. “I go in, followed by the rest of you. Uswah spikes the door, watches for more from the stairs?”
Once he received acknowledgment from the group, Arthur crept back up the stairs. He breathed deeply, calming his racing heart and wiping sweaty palms on his pants a few times before he pushed forward. Best to get this done, and quickly.
The door swung open easily. He stepped in with no incident. To his surprise, it was an open hall that stretched for a good thirty or so meters before ending in a stone wall. Dim light, filtering in from narrow slits, illuminated the vast emptiness that was this room.
Stalking within, wary of invisible enemies, he kept his spear point in front of him as he worked the edges, and the women spread out to the opposite side and middle of the room. They crossed the entire hall, finding nothing but a few particularly dark splotches on the floor before they regrouped in the center. Uswah joined them after making sure the door would not shut.
“What do you think?” Arthur asked.
“Trap?” Jan said.
“Or did Mel and the others clear it first?” Sharmila offered.
“Maybe.” Uswah pointed to the darkened floor. “I feel quite a bit of Yin energy in there.”
Arthur frowned, not sensing it himself. Then again she was significantly more trained. “So the guardians were killed?”
A shrug and nod from the woman. They were just guessing after all.
“Maybe it’s a trigger?” Jan said, pointing to the door that had not been propped open.
“If so, do we want to trigger it?” Sharmila said.
“Why would we?” Arthur said incredulously.
“Stones. And maybe, to not leave enemies behind?”
“Yeah but if it’s not triggered, maybe we’ll save ourselves a world of trouble,” Arthur said.
Again, another shrug. Guesses. All kinds of guesses.
In the end, the group chose not to push their luck. Injured and tired as they were, they could not afford to run a risk like that. Limping back to the stairs, Arthur took point again and waited till the door was fully closed. Uswah eyed the door, but since it swung inwards, there was no way to bar it from opening their way, not without a lot more ropes. In the end, they chose to leave it be and began their ascent once more.
Three floors, three empty halls.
Tension ratcheted up as they crept higher. Each time, the opening of a door and the revelation of what lay beyond was a stomach-churning affair. No idea if there was going to be something, or someone, dangerous behind. They could only stand ready.
Yet, all their precautions were wasted. No monsters, no traps, and even no friends awaited them. Just empty rooms and dark splotches that might be the remains of an old battle.
It was on the third floor that they first found a clue that the quest for their friends might not be entirely forsaken. It was Jan who spotted it, hidden between the gaps of two stone tiles. She bent low, picked up an ivory-colored object, and called the others. The simple plastic button, perhaps torn loose from a shirt, was all the hope they had.
“Didn’t Mel’s favorite blouse have buttons like that?” Sharmila said, frowning as she tried to recall.
Uswah picked up the button from Jan’s hand, turning it sideways and then bringing it close to her nose to sniff. After a moment, she handed the button back to Jan, who looked puzzled about what to do with it. Eventually, she slipped it into a pocket with a shrug.
“Yes, I think so,” Uswah confirmed. “No thread on the button, no smell of blood. Maybe it just fell off?”
Arthur made a face, then shook his head. He had nothing to offer to the conversation, instead squatting to stare at the floor. It took him a bit, but he spotted it. Running a finger along the ground, he murmured, “Blood splatter. I think we can confirm there’s been a fight here.”
“Against what?” Sharmila said, gesturing about. “If they killed something, why are there no bodies? Where are the monsters?”
“Ah lah! I can’t stand it. We don’t know anything,” Jan said in exasperation.
In reply, Uswah pointed upwards.
Which, really, was answer enough for them all. Because up was the only way they were going to find an answer.