My boots were covered in charred filth. Ichor dripped down my forearms, puddling around my grip on Silah. I breathed out slowly, letting a calm seep in, edging out this nagging anger that pressed in from all sides; expectations, demands... contempt. It had somehow translated from the venomous spiders to … everyone else. Stewing about it just brought it all back. And, again, I took a deep breath attempting to let it go.
"Come close, everyone." Danin called out.
I looked toward him, and smirked in the darkness. This was instruction that I did want to follow. I moved in close to the group who seemed to be looking themselves over. Danin grasped his holy symbol and spoke a few words of prayer. An indescribable wave rolled over me and I saw the others respond similarly. I watched as my charred, cracked hands softened the cracks sealed together without scarring. I could feel the remaining bite wounds close as well. I let out a satisfied sigh.
"Let's see what else is in there," Floki said, moving out onto the wide ledge around the abyss which, apparently was filled with water. A few lit stones were tossed down into the crystal clear water, revealing mining equipment that had tumbled into the deep water ages ago. Tunnels moved off in different directions, but all were too deep to peer down from this angle.
"I wonder if the pump would work on this water?" I mused.
"We'll try that, but lets see what else is here first." Sig said, pointing down the hallway just to our right from the tunnel we emerged from.
"It looks like there is rope and tack at the end of that tunnel." I nodded, "I wonder if there is a lift still works?"
The ropes themselves looked like the twisting disemboweled guts of some horror dangling just out of sight. We all moved down the hallway toward it to see how far the shaft went.
"I'll shoot a light up there," Sig said, touching a crossbow bolt and pointing it up the shaft.
It skittered off of the walls on the way up. I backed out of the tunnel as I saw it turn back and come sailing back down to where we stood, landing with a thunk into the ground.
"Let me try." Danin said, with a wry smile toward Sig.
Danin pulled out his larger crossbow and cranked a bolt back. He touched the bolt with a word and it lit up as well. He leaned back, drawing a bead on the darkness overhead and let loose. Again, I stepped back as the bolt came sailing back down the shaft with terrifying speed.
"Guys. Can we let the archer do this?" Floki said, stepping between everyone, moving into the center of the shaft.
He cranked his bow back, sending the string trembling. Sig touched the fletchings on the arrow and, just as they lit up, Floki sent the arrow sailing. A second passed and it thudded loudly into a wooden strut far above us.
"That's going to be a long climb." I said, concerned.
"Oh, I've got this." Sig replied.
He spoke a few words and his feet lifted from the floor again. He floated up the shaft at a decent clip, holding one of the lit crossbow bolts that had fallen back. We waited for a time, but as soon as he reached the top, he went silent.
"What's he doing up there?" Floki asked, squinting into the distance.
The light that Sig was holding moved out of sight. I shrugged and turned to walk out of the shaft.
"He can take care of himself. Let's look at the rest." I called out behind me.
Floki stopped at the end of the hallway.
"I'll just keep an ear out for him." He said, Tenner looking to him as we walked on.
I realized that the Greatsword was still held loosely in my grasp, the tip hovering just above the floor. I didn't anticipate anything sudden, but, still, I wanted to be ready if that was the case.
The bridge was in a strange place with the wires that suspended it mounted to the walls. The mounted rings and the cables themselves were only just now showing rust, giving an indication of their quality. This was a partial bridge that extended over the water, likely part of the larger lift structure that had fallen many years ago.
I sheathed the quiet Silah. As Danin looked out over the bridge, Bromm set to work reloading his musket and pepperbox.
"Anyone have some rope?" I asked around, "I left mine out in the main shaft."
Danin nodded and turned his back to me. I pulled out a rope and tossed it around his waist, he looked at me puzzled.
"This is Dwarven construction." He said, with a scowl, "You don't trust it?"
"Just in case, Danin. Just in case." I muttered.
The knot looked solid enough and Danin thought so as well. Bromm was shaking his head as we fussed over the order to tie it in.
"That may have been just fine, sure." Bromm said evenly, "But if Beidrick taught me anything—which isn't much mind you—it's how to tie a good knot."
He untied the knot easily and then tied an elaborate flourish and tugged at it to demonstrate its strength. I nodded appreciatively at his skill. He then went back to reloading his weapons.
"Right, Danin, go ahead." I said, looping the rope around my arm and bracing myself.
Danin made no effort to proceed gently, feeling absolutely sure in the bridge's construction. The huddled husk was covered in dust and residual webbing. It was an old Dwarf, Danin called out, as he attempted to tug a small wooden coffer from its grip. The head lolled back and fell off with the effort. The arms also fell with the second tug, sending the corpse into moldering pile. Danin stood, sending the bridge creaking with his weight. He then tromped back to us, looking me in the eye as he did so. I shrugged.
"Better safe than sorry, right?" I offered.
Bromm unbound the rope and coiled it, placing it back in Danin's pack. The movement seemed to have gained the interest of a spider that stood near one of the mounted cables. I pulled Silah out of the sheath, holding her at the ready in case it decided to advance. I could see, above us a that there were many glistening eyes waiting, watching, but we seemed to be of little interest to the rest.
The box rattled with a single heavy item. Danin muttered some words and peered closely at it.
"It has an arcane nature to it." He said, "Whatever it is, it's very potent."
He was marveling at what he saw, seeming to look beyond the box itself. The lock on the lid looked like it had been pried open before and Danin open it easily. A rough dark stone with lines of red strata running through it. It seemed to catch light of it's own volition, the shifting patterns seemed to disregard the source of light. There was an overwhelming surge from Silah that shocked me as she rumbled violently in my head.
"Let me see it." I trembled with the insistence from her all consuming voice. I turned the blade and willed her to join us.
Letting her go in human form was a sudden relief. It was telling that she had been holding back when she had asserted herself earlier. But I wasn't sure if I should be thankful that she didn't roll over me, or worried that should easily could. I now felt more assured in my increasing defiance.
She approached but stopped, trembling at the sight of the stone, watching it closely as it rolled around in the box. No one dared touch it.
Floki and Sig approached. Sig had a wide mischievous smile on his face. Then looked on to the rest of us, suddenly bemused.
"What did you find?" Sig said, looking at Silah's reaction with consternation.
"I was," She gulped involuntarily, "Made from one of those."
That sent a shock through me and I gaped at her. The others seemed to react similarly. I put my hand on her trembling shoulder, feeling a torrent of emotion flowing through her, unrestrained. Her eyes only showed a miniscule amount of the anguish that I could feel from our contact.
"Those… lines. Those red lines are the sign that it contains a," she paused, whispering almost soundlessly, "a soul."
Sig twined his fingers and whispered some words, then looked closely at it, peering at it with a similar wonder that Danin had earlier.
"I can't tell you anything about it." He said, shaking his head.
Bromm produced a cloth from his pouch. It was something that he use to clean his pistol. He held it under the edge of the box and Danin tipped the stone into the cloth. Sig reached out and Bromm put the cloth wrapped stone in Sig's hands carefully. I felt a crawling wariness as Sig looked closely at the shimmering surface. Feelings of distrust rose to the surface as I read his eyes. Silah moved up against me. I felt her clinging to me, feeling the threat of being whisked away by the torrent of emotions that had taken hold of her.
"I'm sure my Pop-pop would know more about this." Sig nodded to himself, "Do you mind?"
"No, go ahead." Bromm obliged, shrugging.
Sig bundled the stone in the cloth and it disappeared into his haversack. For a moment, I wondered if we would ever see it again.
There was a moment of quiet. Silah remained pulled tightly against me, I took a deep breath closing my eyes as I turned her toward me and embraced her.
I could hear the shuffle of movement coming from the others.
"Should we check the rest of the tunnels?" Floki said uncomfortably, breaking the silence.
"Yes, lets do that." Silah said, looking up to me, pushing her arm into my hand and nodding sullenly.
I mentally commanded her to turn into a sword and she rapidly diminished in my grip.
I am so sorry. I thought.
She said nothing, but her warm, invisible embrace enveloped me in response. We moved down the far shelf, clearing the spiders with ease. The fresh taste of death seemed keep Silah content, keeping the burgeoning feelings at bay. The remaining tunnel went only into darkness with a small tag showing when the tunnel has been abandoned.
"Does someone want to run the pump while we look below?" Sig asked.
Bromm perked up at the chance at thwarting his enemy: water. I moved with him, gathering the tools we brought and lifting the heavy ore-filled backpack. I could hear the pump working in short order, the sloshing sound taking hold and quickly draining the water below.
Floki joined us shortly.
"It looks like you were right, the water goes through both. Did you know that Danin can also float around like Sig?"
"It's … unnatural." I shook my head.
"So are a lot of things." Floki said dryly, "You'll get use to it."
Floki continued, "Didn't you want to look back down in the old cart? See if there was anything further down?"
"Yeah, I didn't know if everyone was up for it." I grab the ore laden pack and slung it over a shoulder, "I should take this up first."
I set out, climbing the spiral staircase alone while the others gathered. There was a quiet peace in this darkness. The humming of the insects was just enough natural noise to counteract the deafening silence. Besides the imminent death looming from below, I felt like I could get used to the isolation of a place like this.
I dumped the pack at the back of the storeroom, the mid-morning light still shone through readily, the doors still laid near the entrance. I could have sworn that more time had passed, but how would you know without seeing the sun itself? I lifted my hand and grasped Silah's hilt.
"How are you doing?" I said softly.
I pulled her free from the scabbard and willed her back to her human form. She didn't resist, but she stayed, frozen in place, staring off into the darkness. Silence loomed for a time.
"I'm fine." She said, hardly seeming fine. "Just … memories I'd rather forget. Everything coming to the surface."
Her eyes, with some effort, looked to me, her body and head unmoving, and lingered. She looked at me as I had looked at the others just earlier: weighing, judging.
"I said I'd tell you about it … someday, but to be honest," her words fractured as she spoke, "I don't think I can … could bear reliving it."
I stepped up to her and encircled my arms around her rigid form, and, by degrees, she began to relax.
"I'd never ask if I knew it caused you this much pain." I shook my head with the words. "I can't bear to see you like this."
She reached her arms around me and returned the embrace.
"I have a way to take your mind off of it." I said with a smile.
"Hmmm?" She mused for a moment, "Oh no, not that. Really?"
She let out a bemused sigh.
"I'll be coming with you this time. They're giving us some light to work by, too." I said with a smile.
I took her hand and continued, "Let's get this over with and we can go find if there's fun to be had."
Her head lolled back for a moment then settled forward roughly into a slumped position.
"Fine." A half smile stole across her face as she met my gaze, "You so owe me."
"That's my girl." I said with a smirk.
I led her by the hand down the spiral stairway to the next level to where Floki and Bromm were waiting. Bromm had continued to pump this whole time. Danin, I assumed, would probably take his place soon after they came back from scouting the other tunnels.
As we waited, I went around the edge of the room, stepping carefully on the wooden floor, digging out small oblong stones from the surrounding walls.
"We're going to head down as soon as we can get some stones lit." I said nodding to Floki, "Then we can get out of here."
There was some chatter coming from spider tunnel. Apparently, Sig and Danin had finished their search.
"Anything interesting?" Floki said as they walked through the tunnel into the main shaft.
"No. Nothing." Danin said with a slight scowl.
"So, what's next?" Sig asked.
I held up the stones I dug out.
"We're going to head down to see if there is anything else as soon as we can get these stones lit." I said.
Sig nodded and both Danin and he began to mumble and touch the stones.
"And you're going with me, correct?" Silah said evenly.
"Yes I am." I nodded, "I told you that I wouldn't ask you to do something I wasn't willing to do myself."
"Naked?" She said with a smirk.
I looked around.
"Sure, but, in front of them? I doubt they'd be all that interested." I said, sidestepping the jab, "Plus, I wouldn't ask you to do that, would I?"
"Fair enough." She raised an eyebrow at me.
We took the lit stones down the next flight of rickety stairs finding our way back to the edge of the shaft that descended further.
"You said it. I want to see it." She said wryly.
"You do realize that it is very cold. I doubt you even feel it." I said with a grimace.
"But you'll do it for me, right?" She moved close, touching my breastplate.
"Absolutely, my dear." I said with a chuckle.
I slowly, deliberately removed all of my clothes and she did the same, laying her still damp white dress over my clump of dirty clothes.
Her pale skin was luminescent in the thin light of the magicked stones. She faced me for a moment, smiling wryly as I gazed at her. I adored her to my very core. I hoped that, regardless of whatever conflicts we had, she knew that. She turned on her heel and disappeared, as she had before, hopping into the water with barely a splash.
I moved up to the edge, looking in. A short ways below the surface, I could see an eerily calm Silah looking up at me, expectantly. I took a deep breath and braced myself against the cold and stepped in. I retrieved the glowing rocks from the shelf and made my way under the water. Silah bounded easily along the bottom, letting gouts of air from her lungs and replacing it with water. Her movements were especially graceful as her short hair swam behind her. We investigated a tunnel to the right first which terminated quickly into a tapering dead end. After a minute, I charged back to the surface, my lungs burning. She reached up and clasped loosely around my foot as I took a few deep breaths on the surface.
"I will look down this other tunnel, you can stay here. I'll let you know what I find." Her voice echoed in my mind, then there was the feeling of a loving smile, "I always believed you, about you coming down with me, but it means so much more to see it first hand."
Her hand slid away and I saw her naked form, holding the glowing stone in front of her, slide gracefully down the tunnels below. I gripped the shelf and ducked my head under the water and watched, my vision blurred, with as she moved like a luminescent ghost through the water-filled tunnels. At quite a distance, there was a pause and the light dropped suddenly.
I raised my head and took a breath, then dove with the two glowing rocks. I placed them on the floor to illuminate the way out. I went back and took a breath again, then watched for her. I was starting to feel anxious, but then I saw the light ascend from the far side of the tunnel and move toward me. I dove to meet her. She had broken the lit rock and put a portion of it in her mouth and was using it to light her way keeping her hands free.
I nodded at her ingenuity.
She had a large chunk of gold ore in her silky arms. She dropped it as I approached and I could feel the thud into soft earth. She reached out and touched my arm.
"There is more down there," Her voice slipped again into my mind, "About as much as there was in the first cart. Can you carry this from here?"
Yes, that shouldn't be a problem. I thought.
She nodded, and smiled, the glowing rock behind her teeth giving her ghostly visage a somewhat predatory quality. She turned away, moving back down the hallway. I grabbed the ore chunk at my feet and grunted with the effort, losing some breath. I struggled down the hallway and pushed off the floor to reach the shelf. My head crested and I caught my breath, but lost the stone. After a moment, I dropped back down and hefted the stone, then pushed off of the silty stone floor and launched the stone out of the water. I felt it thud in the hallway beyond through the water. I took a breath and dove again just to see Silah just steps away.
She handed me a slightly smaller chunk and then touched my shoulder.
"I can do this alone." Her echo oozed with concern.
I shook my head.
I'll be faster if we work together. I thought, not actually feeling all that sure.
"This is the last of the large chunks, the rest are much smaller. But there are a lot of them." She paused, "Are you sure you're up for it?"
I nodded, feeling my chest tighten with the need for air.
I turned and rushed toward the exit, bracing against the floor and pushing off as I did with the other chunk, sending it tumbling into the hallway. I crested, gripping the shelf again, breathing deeply.
The chunks got smaller and smaller, but that meant more trips, which was even more tiresome. I was well beyond weary, at this point. Then I saw that the magically lit stones were starting to fade. I ducked into the water and swam quickly toward Silah. I touched her shoulder.
The magic seems to fading. How much more? I thought, feeling unnecessarily panicked.
She pursed her lips, the glowing rock in her mouth not producing much light at this point.
"I could get it in one trip."
She handed off the stones she had and quickly turned, this time swimming. I watched her silky form darting quicking into the fading light.
I gathered the ore and moved quickly down the hall, the lit stones along the hallway fading quickly. After tossing the rocks topside, the hallway was unlit showing the blacks and grays I was used to seeing. I swam quickly toward the cart, as she crested the edge, loose ore chunks rolling around in her carefully scooped arms. Her eyes looked into the darkness, sightless. The remainder was a meager amount, which prompted a smile. Likely just enough to pay for a stay at a tavern, which now seemed utterly trivial.
I touched her, and I could see her pick up on my vision. I took some of the loose stones and we both swam to the entrance. I crested and tossed the ore into the hallway, into a pile that was clearly too big for my rucksack. I pulled myself up, feeling a bone deep fatigue settle over me.
I reached down and pulled Silah through the water with a bit of effort. She turned and sat on the edge and doubled over, emptying the liquid from her lungs with quite the display. She took a deep breath and shook the water from her hair.
"Well, that was an adventure." She said, with a wide smile, looking blindly into the darkness.
I took her arm and helped her to her feet then pulled her close, her uncannily warm body mellowing against my chilled skin. I tilted her chin and gave her a long kiss. I drank in the swirl of emotions that whirled between us.
I withdrew and looked down at her now blissful face.
"Indeed." I replied, giving her a toothy grin.
(Get to know Akeron.)