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 burning fish oil hung in the air.
He drew the stench through the black silk wrapping his face. Traces of garlic and musk tickled his nostrils. And was that ginger he detected? Cinnamon, mingled with sesame?
His mind sifted through the hundreds of scents he had crammed into his memory. Could a twelve-year-old brain really contain all that data?
When the crunch came, no.
Calm, his sensei would whisper in his ear.
Trav closed his eyes and let a long breath filter through his lungs. All existence faded from him. Only the scents in his sinuses remained.
Among the aromas hovered a hint of sheep’s wool. Aged, oiled timber and dank stone lingered with it. And tainting the fumes of roasting fish oil was a whiff of human hair.
His eyes snapped open. He scanned the darkness.
Shadows within the sanctum congealed into totem poles rising into blackness. The stacked faces twisted in petrified agony. Eyes and nostrils glowed dull red. Firepots flickered in gaping mouths.
Long ago his body had numbed to the temple tower’s chill. Not even the frigid floor timbers reached through the chamois leather swaddling his feet.
He let another icy draught fill 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. Wrinkles mapped the sensei’s dark eyes and cheeks. 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 be seasoned 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. Snowflakes spewed through 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. The silence of his footfalls confirmed his hours of practice 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?”
The sash at Trav’s 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 as stout as tree trunks stretched before him. The totems’ flames dipped and danced. Snowy whirlwinds cavorted along the walls.
Across the chamber loomed a portal of hewn timber. The barricade guarded the relic he must retrieve.
Dread choked 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 maw, his heart hammering his ribs.
A demon’s shriek shattered the stillness. Shadows high overhead exploded into a gargoyle hurtling toward him.
Trav snatched his Katana sword from between his shoulders. The weapon’s ionized blade ignited as it struck the demon’s staff.
Instead of shattering, the hellion’s pike flared into a rod of molten magma. The demon lunged, singeing the silk at Trav’s waist.
Trav beat back the phantom’s thrusts. Lightning scorched the temple totems. Globules of magma boiled on the floor.
Trav vaulted to a fresh patch of pavement. He snuffed his blade and shrank into the shadows. Like the spider, await your prey.
Again the planks beneath him separated.
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 chasm walls.
The hellion danced across the tumbling timbers. Trav met his broiling spear with a blade of sizzling positrons.
A third section of floor disintegrated. Trav fell with the planks toward the river. He clawed at the stone arch and pulled himself to one of the totems rising from it. Flint sliced his gloves and sawed his flesh.
Down the totem clambered the demon. From head to toe he was swathed in black. A dragon’s sneer was painted on 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 lava spear 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, contracted his muscles and coiled himself around the demon’s legs. The spear scorched 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 lance.
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 roasted his fingers and his feet. Beneath him yawned three twelve-foot squares of missing floor. Forty feet below the holes raged the canyon river.
There must be a pattern to the planks, Trav thought, something that revealed the safe footholds.
A scream ripped the air behind him. From the shadows shot a rattlesnake of rope that wrapped his ankles. Lashed to the cord’s tail was a rock that bashed his shin.
The cable 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 was drowned in the deluge.
Through a funnel of jagged rock the current hurled him. If the cord binding 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 oxygen canisters in his belt?
Metal bars scraped his spine. The river mashed him against an iron grate.
With a mighty heave he rolled onto his stomach beneath the booming torrents. His face squashed into a cavity 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. The deluge dissolved into spray that dissipated in the darkness below. Silence surrounded him, broken only by echoes of dripping water.
Shocked and shivering he rolled onto his back. Every bone was bruised, every sinew battered to jelly.
Floodlights blazed through the grotto. He squinted against the glare.
Down a stone stair tramped a solitary silhouette. The intruder’s voice reverberated through the cavern. “I’ve seen worse.”
A leather bomber jacket swathed his 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 quaking elbows. He surveyed the floor timbers strewn around him.
His chattering teeth chopped his moan into mincemeat. “Was the frozen river really necessary?”
Alex tossed a bath towel in Trav’s face. “Class dismissed. Time for a field trip.”