Jealousy sparks tension as too climbers reach into the depths.
They usually tell you not to look down – Lothar was well past that. There was a small pick on his belt, but he didn’t need it: his body was as hard as the rock he held; his fingers were steel rods on the flat shovels of his hands, pushing into each tiny crevice.
His only problem? He wasn’t Roo.
Rupert was waiting at the surface, near the crack the earthquake had opened. As always, Lothar had gone first – both knew he was the better climber, even if it was Roo everyone loved. He was just wonderful. He was lithe, he was handsome, he was just so damn good. Lothar loved him, and he hated him.
He hammered the peg in and called for Roo to join him. Roo’s compact body quickly shimmied along the rope, dismounting with a flourish which impressed Lothar as much as it disgusted him. Flourishes, interviews – people – that was Roo’s area. Lothar kept his ugly face to the rocks.
Roo led the way to the next chamber. The ground was smooth and the walls had the telltale marks of hammer and chisel. They moved by torchlight, but when the air changed texture Roo lit a flare and tossed it into the darkness.
Lothar choked on his breath.
This would bring people from all over the world. The stone knights alone, each on a marble plinth, would be in every guidebook from now on – but the thing atop the mound in the centre . . .
It was stuck almost to the hilt in the rock, only a sliver of blade visible above the dark mass. “Should I pull it?” asked Roo, but it was already clear he was going to. Lothar felt the bile rise in his throat, gritted his teeth. Always Roo. They would love him for this.
Half sliding, half grating, the sword was already moving when Lantz speared into his friend’s midriff, tumbling them both down into the smoky light of the dying flare; crashing into the smothering darkness.
The darling of society dinners, the generous host who raised thousands for good works and then volunteered in them himself: Roo the beloved.
Roo the saviour.
Roo the bold.
He loved him and he hated him.
When it was all over, Lothar struck a flare of his own. Roo lay below him, twitching slightly, with Lothar’s pick in his back. Above him was the sword. Lothar tugged until his eyes popped, but it didn’t budge.
And then the voice began.
“We wait,” it said, “for the return of the king doomed by envy.”
And one of the plinths was empty.
“Do the ravens still circle the mountaintop?” The voice was dust and centuries. Lothar watched, paralysed, as a shape emerge from the shadows.
Clanking like the keys to forgotten tombs, the armoured figure approached the stone, and with one mailed hand he slid the sword back in. He put a gentle arm around Lantz and led him away.
“I understand,” he said as they passed Roo’s corpse. “Better than you know.”
Lothar managed a nod.
“But there is a debt.”
The knight’s voice was whistling now as they crossed the barren floor to his plinth. Lothar chanced a look at him – his armour was gone, but the clanking continued. In place of the armour was a bare skeleton, its grin horribly misplaced against its melancholy tone.
“Pay the debt,” it said.
And as Lothar Lantz clanked onto the plinth and lay down, the armour biting into his bones, he knew it might take centuries.