Gaius killed the first two acolytes with two mechanical downward strikes of his axe, crushing the skull of one and cleaving the other from shoulder to pelvis.
He blinked away blood and brain and bellowed out a battlecry. He was glad to be fighting of his own volition and with his own finite strength, pleased by the feeling of fatigue and aching joints. Of the next two barbarians, one noticed the commotion behind them and turned to face Gaius, bringing his staff around in a high arc that swept out over the pit and towards Gaius’ left side.
Pleasing to face the enemy from the front, easy though it is to slash at backs undefended.
Gaius snapped the axe up in a crosswise block, his left hand holding the butt and his right under the head. The crude weapon proved its worth, and snapped where the staff struck it. The blow carried through into Gaius’ bare midsection, and the air left him as the staff’s metal head broke skin and ribs. He keeled over, stars before his eyes, and groaned as he struggled for breath. The pain was unbelievable, and from that moment every movement was agony, no matter how far removed from the place of impact.
Still struggling to breath, still raked by the pain in his side, Gaius did not allow for a second swing. Letting the broken handle fall, he crushed the acolyte’s weapon against his flank with his left hand and heaved the enemy that wielded it towards him. His right hand, still holding the axe head, swung around to meet the foe as he clung to his weapon. The haymaker caught the robed figure above the ear, and the man beneath the folds crumpled with the axe head stuck fast in his skull.
Gaius tried for a moment to free the lodged weapon fragment, but wasted no time once he saw that it was well and truly stuck. His eyes turned upwards to where the final barbarian acolytes beat at Marcus, their staffs gouged and shortened by his parries. One lay freshly dead at his feet, still twitching, and only two remained upright. Under their onslaught, Gaius saw his comrade convulse with desperate breath, covered in sweat and blood, and moving his sword in huge, sloppy movements.
The first of these final assailants, the one nearest the edge, Gaius grabbed by the fabric about the shoulders and hurled him with a shout into the depths that had proved so useful already that day. As the white billowing figure disappeared, Gaius turned to the last one that remained–too late.
His view was obscured by whirling robes, but from his vantage he saw the white shape jerk back suddenly in a shower of wood splinters and staff shards, and at the same time a crimson swordpoint sprang from the barbarian’s back.
Gaius stopped and laughed, as he heard Marcus do from the other side of the thrashing form that he had skewered. Gaius’ laugh turned into a sigh, and he allowed himself to feel the fatigue that he had held at bay through the closing act of that subterranean struggle.
He leaned over and rested his hands on his knees, breathing long and deep, and looked up with mirth as the sword point that still stuck out from the stricken assailant swept sideways through flesh and fabric. The body sank to the ground and revealed a battered but breathing Marcus. He looked for a moment at his sword, snorted, and wiped it on the lower part of his tunic before sheathing it.
Gaius strode up to him, over the huddled dead between them, and sized him up. Marcus was bruised all over, bled from some of the worse discolorations, and brushed away splinters that had become lodged in his skin. But he was upright and without serious injury, and Gaius was pleased. He was less pleased with himself, and said as much then.
“I must apologize, Marcus, for leading an attack more stupid than bold. Something seized my mind and dragged me into combat, without forethought and without sense, and I did not consider you as I struck the first blows. I am pleased that you yet live, but you should not have had to struggle alone.”
“I did not fight alone,” said Marcus, amused, “only not side by side. You took the foe from behind as my strength failed, and now here I stand, alive. My only grievance is that your fierceness has cost me glorious death, and shamed me with rescue.”
“Then we are even.” Gaius said, the matter settled. “Each has helped the other and been helped, but now let us do something together.” he said, gesturing towards the hanging globule at the centre of the room. It was still rippling and stirring, but no longer roiling as it had when Gaius was under its control.
“No poetic turn of phrase was it to say that my mind was not my own before. That damn thing is infecting me just as it infected the druid in the forest.” he said, spitting out a wad of thickening black bile and indicating the dark stain on his chest and stomach. Even then he felt warmth and bitterness welling once again behind his tongue.
“I would cut it down, lest it trouble me further.”
With Gaius leading the way, the two men stepped over corpses, shuffling, hopping, and shaking their feet free of tangled white robes. They strode out onto the walkway that led to the platform at the centre of the room, and as they did, neither could help but look over the edge to try to glean what awaited those they had flung over the precipice. Darkness was the answer, for the pit and its smooth stone walls stretched so far down that they simply faded from sight in the lightlessness below.
It might well be bottomless, though one would not know from here. Not without testing the depth himself.
Gaius grimaced at the thought, and set his eyes back ahead, trying not to think of the thin stone that held them aloft above the headlong drop, absent supports of any kind.
They reached the end of the walkway where the empty stone chair waited, covered in the stuff dripping from above, and looked up. The strange black mass hung above the seat just a little out of reach. Both men stared up at it for a moment, and then eyed Marcus’ sword.
The legionary shook his head.
“We’re not likely to cut this monstrosity down from this height, sword or no. To swing at the hanging part, I think, would do nothing but sully our iron and cause further infection.”
“Indeed,” answered Gaius, red faced as he now realized the absurdity of his intention–to cut this thing down, this thing perilous even to touch, without a way to get above it. The corners of his mouth turned down as he sighed his annoyance.
He looked up to the cluster of roots that grew down from on high and held the black pendulum suspended. They stretched up from the hanging mass and spread thickly across the ceiling, grown densely into the rock and soil above.
It occurred to Gaius then that they grew dense enough by far for a grapnel to catch amongst them. His expression changed and he turned on his heel, stalking back across the walkway and to the ledge that the two romans had strewn with the dead. Marcus took no notice of Gaius’ departure, and he continued to stare up in vexation at the hanging anomaly.
He was about to try his sword against it, in spite of the obvious futility, when his centurion called from behind.
“Marcus! I have need of a keen edge. Bring me your sword.”
From back near the wall, Gaius watched the legionary raise his blade halfway in a hesitant movement, hold it aloft, and then let it fall as he turned to obey the command. Puzzled frustration soured the soldier’s features as he approached–at their inability to escape or even to strike at the cursed thing by whose will it seemed they were trapped.
But Gaius was grinning now, for that would soon be set to rights, and at least one part of their predicament corrected. He looked down and wiped the brains from the axe head he’d just recovered.
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