Twelve-year-old Travis Warnofski crouched against a pillar of petrified wood. With pinched eyes he peered into the sanctum beyond.
Pinpricks of flame sputtered in the gloom. A stink of scalded fish soured the air.
He drew the stench through black silk wrapping his face. Traces of garlic and musk teased his nostrils. And was that ginger he detected? Or cinnamon, mingled with sesame?
His eyes clamped shut. He sifted through the hundreds of scents crammed into his memory.
Calm, his sensei would whisper in his ear.
Trav let a long, languid breath fill his lungs. All existence faded from him, leaving only the scents lingering in his sinuses.
Among the aromas hovered a hint of sheep’s wool. Aged, oiled timber and dank stone wafted with it. And buried in the fumes of burning fish oil was a whiff of human hair.
Long ago his body had numbed to the temple tower’s chill. Even the floor’s frigid beams failed to penetrate the leather swaddling his feet.
Shadows within the sanctum congealed into totem poles rising into blackness. The stacked faces twisted in petrified agony. Firepots flickered in gaping mouths. Eyes and nostrils glowed dull red.
He let another icy draught chill his chest. Aches awakened in his ribs—the bruises of countless blows borne throughout his training.
Even now he saw before him his sensei’s weathered face and narrow eyes. Wrinkles mapped his cheeks and veins roped his hands. His robes shrouded limbs as gaunt as hockey sticks. But his every move was a bolt of lightning.
“You wish to purge a plague?” the sensei would bellow while battering Trav with an oaken staff. The sensei’s long moustache and threadbare beard would thrash like silken serpents about his face. “What is the death of all diseases?”
“Salt!” Trav would shout, his trained response. Anything less invited another blow.
Time and again he would grab at the sensei’s staff as it whooshed toward him. Always his fingers grasped empty air. The old man could dance off walls and vault over rooftops. He could vanish into corners and explode from crevices.
“To season with salt is not enough,” the sensei would roar. “You must become salt.”
Trav shook away the memory and focused on the sanctuary before him. The totems’ firepots flickered and hissed. He counted nine columns, in three rows of three. Along each wall stood another trio of pillars. Together they formed a forest of 21 totems, all sputtering flame and spewing their fish-oil stench. Black timbers walled the sanctuary, creaking against a tempest howling outside. Snow and ice spewed through the hairline cracks between the planks.
He inched along the forest fringe.
“Keep to walls,” the sensei had warned him. “Floors speak.”
He meant the tiny peeps that trumpeted one’s footsteps to an enemy. “Mark every sound, make none.”
Past the first pillar Trav crept. He dipped beneath the totem’s smoldering maw. Heat from the firepot bathed his scalp and spine. For a moment he savored the sensation.
No distractions, he reminded himself. Embrace the cold, be one with it. Only then can you sense the warmth of an approaching enemy.
Each of Trav’s steps was a ballet in slow motion, a meticulous placement of toe, pad and heel. His silence affirmed the hours he had practiced crossing forest carpets of brittle leaves.
“Those born of salt are the Saving Ones,” the sensei would say at the close of each lesson. By then, Trav lay groaning at the sensei’s feet. A prod from the sensei’s staff would goad Trav from the ground. “Are you ready, small one?”
Trav wondered if he was.
The sash at his waist scraped wood. He halted, pulse hammering. Leave no tell. Even the slimmest thread could betray his intrusion.
Through his silken mask he searched the gloom. Floor beams stretched before him like stone rails. Each was as stout as a tree trunk. The totems’ flames dipped and danced. Snowy whirlwinds cavorted along the walls.
Across the chamber loomed a portal of stout timber. Beyond the barricade waited the relic he must retrieve.
Dread knifed his heart. The few minutes left to him were slipping away.
Outside, the blizzard wailed its banshee’s lament. Firepots hissed and walls groaned. Somewhere distant, a mountain waterfall roared.
He gauged his path along the chamber’s perimeter. Two-thirds of his trek could be eliminated if he went straight for the gate. Precious seconds would be saved.
He padded into the forest.
The planks beneath his foot parted. Timbers spilled into a black abyss. He seized the nearest totem and halted his plunge into the void.
A river thundered through a gorge beneath the temple floor. The cataract’s torrents swallowed the timbers and carried them away. Trav clung to the totem’s fiery maw, his heart hammering his ribs.
A demon’s shriek shattered the stillness. Shadows high above exploded into a gargoyle hurtling from the heavens.
Trav snatched his Katana sword from between his shoulders. The weapon’s quatro-quasar blade sparked as it struck hellion’s slashing weapon.
Instead of shattering, the fiend’s sword flared into a rod of molten magma. The demon lunged at Trav, searing the air and singeing the silk at Trav’s waist.
Trav beat back the phantom’s blows. Lightning scorched the temple totems. Globules of magma boiled on the floor.
Trav vaulted from the totem to a fresh patch of pavement. His sword blazed in his sweating fists.
Again the planks beneath him parted.
A backward somersault saved him from a fall into the canyon river. The collapsing timbers exposed a stone arch straddling the gorge. Ice crusted the carved rocks.
Across the chasm lunged the hellion. Trav met his broiling blade with a shaft of sizzling ions.
A third section of floor disintegrated. Trav tumbled with the timbers toward the river. He clawed at the stone arch beneath them and pulled himself to the canyon wall. Rocks sliced his gloves and sawed his flesh.
Down the totem tower clambered the demon. From head to toe he was swathed in black. A dragon’s sneer adorned his silk hood. He snatched a throwing star from his sash and slung it.
Trav wrenched to one side. The star chipped the stone beside his face.
Boots slapped the arch above him. The demon raised his weapon for death blow.
Trav’s blade was gone. He didn’t remember losing it.
With an upward thrust he caught the hellion’s ankles. He swung outward, contracting his muscles and coiling himself around the demon’s legs. The lava sword scalded empty rock.
A hard pull on the hellion’s tunic sent the assailant toppling.
The fiend twisted in midair. He latched onto the canyon wall and scrambled toward the rafters.
Trav gulped back his shock. The guy’s a cat.
But at least he had lost his lava sword.
Trav hauled himself atop the stone arch and grabbed the nearest totem. Up the carved faces he climbed. Find the high ground.
Flames in the totem’s firepots burned his fingers and feet. Beneath him yawned three twelve-foot squares of missing floor. Forty feet below the holes raged the canyon river.
Trav stole a glance at the fractured pavement. There must be a pattern to the planks, something that revealed the safe footholds.
A scream ripped the air behind him. Trav spun in time to dodge the phantom’s flying kick.
The hellion sailed past the totem and snagged its neighbor. He skittered like a squirrel to its summit.
Another shriek speared Trav’s ears. A cord wrapped his ankles. Lashed to its tail was a rock that bashed his shin.
The cord stretched across the temple tower to a quarterstaff wielded by a second assailant. He jerked the line tight.
Trav’s tethered legs shot out from under him. He plummeted into the river.
A thousand daggers speared his skin as the frigid torrents swallowed him. His scream drowned in the deluge.
Through a funnel of jagged rock the current hurled him. If the cord knotting his legs caught an outcrop he was doomed. He curled into a ball, plucked a laser stiletto from his utility belt and sliced the line.
His lungs were empty of air. How long could he hold off a desperate gasp for oxygen? Had he packed any air canisters into his utility belt?
Metal bars scraped his spine. The river mashed him against an iron grate.
Torrents thundered past him. With a mighty heave he rolled himself onto his stomach. His face squashed an opening between the bars. Around his head opened a hole of water that hurtled into a bottomless abyss. Gratefully he gulped icy air.
The cascades bludgeoning his back ceased. Floodwaters dissipated into the void below. Silence surrounded him.
He lay shocked and shivering on the iron grate.
Light blazed through the grotto. His eyes winced against the glare.
Down a stone stair tramped a solitary silhouette. The intruder’s voice echoed through the cavern. “I’ve seen worse.”
A leather bomber jacket swathed the intruder’s broad shoulders. Unkempt hair crowned his brow. He slurped a soda that Trav knew must be ginger ale. It was the only thing his Uncle Alex drank.
At Alex’s back descended the two assassins, laughing.
Trav propped himself on his elbows. He surveyed the floor timbers strewn around him.
“Was the frozen river really necessary?” he said through chattering teeth.
Alex tossed a bath towel in Trav’s face. “Class dismissed. Time for a field trip.”
Copied with permission from Mission Preposterous by Thomas J. Brodeur. © 2021, Thomas J. Brodeur. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.