Though the shadow monsters had their claws out before the teenagers reached the base of the ramp, it was a quick fight. One slash, one stab and one heavy thud later, shadowgoo was melting into the stone, again leaving nothing but the tiny obsidian shards.
David thumped the end of his staff down heavily on one of the shards. It cracked into gritty fragments with a crunch, releasing a tiny puff of smoke that swirled around the staff and quickly faded away. "Take that, you little bastards."
"Alright!" Trent said. "Just like that, up the sides of the room. If we can keep getting the drop on them, it'll be easy."
"Hey, wait a second," David said, crunching a second stone with his staff. "I just remembered. Weren't we going to get the crossbow from the weapon pile?"
"You're right!" Trent said, smacking himself on the head. "I completely forgot after the ambush."
"That'll make this even easier," Kevin said. "I can live with that." He glanced at the third shadow's shard as David was lining up his staff to crush it. It reminded him of the fragment of the game cartridge he had picked up before they assembled into Diune's body, and he realized in hindsight that maybe they should have made a point of crushing the earlier shadows' stones.
"You suppose there are any other ranged weapons by the other corpses?" David asked. "I know you guys want to make a beeline for home, but at least we ought to search those too."
"There might be more ambushes," Kevin said quickly, before Trent could raise the objection.
"And more treasure," David pointed out.
The three felt, rather than heard, a distant rumbling that tickled the soles of their feet.
Kevin looked around. "Did you guys --?"
"Yeah," Trent said, concerned.
"What was that?" David asked.
"I don't know."
"Um," David cautiously allowed, "I'm willing to concede that perhaps the treasure can wait."
"Yeah," Kevin said. "Let's start climbing."
A loud rumble rolled through the room as the ground shifted under their feet, sending the three reeling. Trent fell against the wall, wincing and dropping his spear with a clatter. A few pebbles dropped around them, hitting the stone floor with tiny pocks like hail. The water in the center of the room agitated into waves, slapping against the pool's edges and spilling out onto the floor.
"What the hell was that?" Trent asked David.
"I don't know!"
Trent picked up his spear and started cautiously edging upward. "Alright. Move."
"Trent," Kevin said, "do you really want to be up on a thin walkway without guardrails if there's some sort of earthquake going on?"
"We should hide in the alcove," said David, who had spent his earliest years in California. "It's the closest thing this place has to a doorway."
"I don't think we'd all fit," Trent said.
"Well, we ought to try!" David said, sidling along the wall.
"Let's just get out of here," Trent urged, taking a few steps upward.
"Uh -- guys?" Kevin said, staying at the base of the ramp. "Let's stick together."
The floor under their feet rocked with a sharp thump, setting off another rumble throughout the entire structure. Light clouds of dust accompanied the pebbles this time. David squeaked and broke into an undignified run, heavy form weaving through the shadow corpses toward the secret door.
"Dave! Stop!" Trent shouted, throwing himself against the wall and bracing himself with the butt of his spear. "Shit."
Kevin looked uncertainly back and forth between his friends, then dashed after David. "C'mon, Trent!"
Trent pointed his spear up the ramp. "Look! We've got to move now! The shadows are retreating!"
Kevin glanced up. The monsters that had phased out through the walls were waddling back up against them and melting away again. "They're taking cover!" Kevin said, motioning Trent over. "So should we!"
"C'mon!" David urged, wedging himself into the alcove around the treasure chest, then putting a leg inside it to better fit.
The water in the pool surged up almost to knee level, expanding out into the room in a circular wave, which picked up the fresh corpses on the floor and washed them out to the edges of the walls. Surprised, David stepped fully inside the treasure chest to keep his jeans and sneakers dry; Kevin instinctively hopped up onto one of the old grey shapes before remembering what he was standing on.
As the water receded, Trent leaped down to the floor, sneakers hitting the stone with a shallow splash. He jogged toward Kevin, leaving a trail of ripples behind. "I know you guys haven't listened to me yet," he said crossly, "and God knows I don't expect you to start, but would you please consider that this may be our last chance to reach that doorway?"
"Let's not tempt fate, Trent," Kevin responded, stepping down to the floor and hustling over to the alcove. "We'll wait for the shaking to stop. We know we can go through the shadows now, if we have to."
"But what if the quake collapses --"
Trent's response was cut off by the eruption of a huge geyser as a massive shape burst up from the pool's depths.
Kevin whirled and backed against the wall, holding up an arm to shield his eyes from the water. David yelped and flinched away. Trent fell into a fighting stance, spear forward and a look of panic on his face.
The giant shape in the waterspout turned sideways as its motion crested, revealing a giant two-horned head atop its massive body, then plunged back to the floor, spreading thick legs. Its landing shook the room again, staggering the teenagers and spraying water everywhere. It threw back its snub-nosed muzzle and bellowed a deafening challenge.
Kevin, David, and Trent simultaneously each let loose a different profanity.
The massive beast looked like some mad scientist's idea of a bull-fish mating, magnified times ten. Patches of shaggy brown fur and silvered scales commingled on its body, which was large enough to stand astride the pool on four refrigerator-thick legs ending in massive hooves. On the sides of its body, huge fins waggled uselessly in the air; its body tapered behind it to a massive, powerful tail. Its head was shaped like a bull's, but armored in a glistening silver befitting its piscine heritage, with two broad horns jutting sideways from its head only to end abruptly where some great force had snapped them off close to the skull. One eye was a baleful grey, blinded long ago by some old wound -- and the other was uselessly misshapen and punctured, the result of some injury far more recent.
The creature's entire body, in fact, was covered with fresh wounds -- stabs and slices, matting fur with dark clotted blood and leaving glistening strips of flesh between the scales. As it bellowed and stamped, swinging its head around and snorting in an attempt to find by scent the intruders it couldn't see, red blood again started seeping out from the newest of its injuries.
"Screw this with a sickle!" David said, wheeling and sprinting for the ramp to their right.
"Okay guys time to run time to run time to run!" Trent shouted, sidestepping left as fast as he could while keeping his spear leveled.
Kevin glanced down at his sword. The unicorn's sword. Which he had found coated in blood. Red blood -- matching the wounds on the bullfish ...
The monster bellowed again, then leaned forward, head tilted toward Kevin. Its snuffling nose quested at him as its jaws leered open, revealing rows of fangs. Kevin knew he ought to be terrified, but all he could feel was an unexpected resolve. An inner calm spread through him: After all he'd suffered, after all the doubts and fear and second-guessing ... here was a situation where he finally understood his purpose.
He lifted the sword to his shoulder, wrapping both hands around the leather grip.
Trent looked back at him with a face painted in pure horror. "Kevin! NO!" he screamed.
Kevin launched himself at the gigantic beast's face. "This is for Diune!"