Amates 31, 1277. Later that same morning. A brief hike between the rocks and into the lion’s den...
The wind howled like an angry ghost by the time we reached the bottom of the canyon. We moved quietly, or as quiet as the occasional loose rock allowed. Fortunately, the silvery-white fog covered our hike and muffled most of the sound. The closer we got to the canyon floor, the thicker the fog became. I had never seen fog this thick. It was almost like smoke. At one point, I wondered if it was following us, but I tossed that idea aside as a case of nerves.
Mikasi, Nicodemus, and I eased past twisted, black bark trees like shadows. A wind I could barely feel rustled the canopy of purple and gray leaves overhead while the fog drifted around us. Before, up on the cliff, the trees looked thin, if not a little sickly. They were a much larger up close, especially their seed pods that looked the color of burnt charcoal.
Those pods varied in size and smelled like smokey, burnt sage. Some were a no bigger than the palm of my hand. Others? They were as large as a full-grown person and every one of them twitched if we got near them. That didn’t do a thing to ease my nerves. Nicodemus didn’t like them, either. Any time a pod writhed, his fur would bristle. Mikasi just stared at the things thoughtfully.
What little I remembered, or really anyone knew, about the Great Chasm was that nothing was as it seemed, and everything wanted to kill you. So, in my mind, the Crimson Company fit right in.
“Mimic trees,” Mikasi whispered. “Be careful. Don’t touch them, or let them touch you.”
That last part got my attention. I froze since I was about to do exactly that to move a limb out of my way.
“Why?” I whispered slowly.
Mikasi waved his hands at one of the nightmare trees.
“From what I read, that’s how they ‘eat’. These trees shuffle along, stalking what they want until they get close. Then they change shape and color to look like a tree that belongs nearby. Something that looks safe, I guess. After that, they either wait for what they’re hunting to touch them or they reach out with a root. Either way, they poison their victim, then swallow them in a seed pod when they're helpless.”
I raised my eyebrows before I gave the tree next to me a sideways glance.
“Don’t even think about it,” I snarled under my breath.
It could have been my imagination, but I thought I saw the tree recoil a little. I wasn’t fond of the Great Chasm and this didn’t help my opinion any. But it gave me an idea. I knelt down, being mindful to keep clear of the mimic tree’s tar-black roots. I pointed to the large waterwheel and water screw ahead of us.
“Here’s what I'm thinking. We loosen the ropes, maybe a bolt or three, then come back here. We can use these monsters to cover our escape.”
“The ropes, yes,” Mikasi replied. “But I think we should leave the bolts alone. Ropes can come untied, or depending on the rope, they wear out faster than any bolt or wooden peg.” he shrugged. “I would believe it was an accident it if it was only the ropes.”
I nodded. “Ropes it is. Hopefully, that’s enough to distract this lot.” A thought made me glared at the tree next to me. “It would be nice if this pack of nightmares around us could walk over there and help.”
Mikasi frowned in thought while he scratched behind one of Nicodemus’s ears. The smoke cheetah purred back at him.
“There’s an idea,” Mikasi said.
I blinked at him.
“The mimic trees helping. I think they can.” He waved a hand at the Crimson Company’s campsite. “See, the poison the tree uses is an oil. There’s a little on the bark, but it’s mostly on the roots and leaves. Especially the leaves. What if we collected some of the fallen leaves to smear oil on levers and other places a person would touch to fix anything?”
“Hold on, you said these trees poison their victims,” I whispered quickly, interrupting him.
Mikasi nodded. “Yes, they do, but its only puts someone to sleep for, oh, about an hour.”
I shook my head. The more I learned about these trees, the less I liked.
“Right, I don’t like the Crimson Company, or their tactics, but are you sure this will just knock someone out? I'm not an assassin looking for my next kill here.”
Mikasi held up his hands at me.
“I promise I'm sure. See, I once got lucky and bought a few leaves off a ruin poacher who survived coming out here.” His cheeks turned a deep crimson. “A day later, I accidentally dropped a leaf in my tea when I wasn’t paying attention. When I realized what had happened, I tried another leaf to be sure.”
I rubbed my eyes. If it had been anyone else who had told me that story, I’m not sure I would’ve believed them.
“You’ve convinced me. It’s a good idea.” I pulled a pair of tan, battered leather gloves out of a belt pouch. “Let's get some leaves and wreck a waterwheel.”
My partner in sabotage grinned. “I'll gum up the gears in the water screw!”
The dark leaves, or at least the ones I picked up, were about the length of my hand and the color of burnt rust with purple streaks. They were soft, a little bloated, with the faint odor of spoiled eggs. It felt like holding a few pieces of rotten fruit or nearly dried out sea sponge. I tried not to think about that too much.
Using the thick, gray-white fog as cover, I kept low and raced across the open space between the mimic trees and the camp’s waterwheel. There were faint footsteps nearby, but nowhere near me. They didn’t sound to be in any hurry. Just the soft crunch of boots against gravel. It had to be a sentry, keeping a watch in all this mess. I felt sort of sorry for whoever that was. Keeping an eye out for anything from wild animals, bandits, or wild magic abominations trying to slip into camp was an important job. It was just one filled with long stretches of dull.
I crouched down between two stacks of crates and a rain barrel that sat at the base of the tall waterwheel. Most waterwheels I'd seen were as big as a two-story house. This one was a good bit smaller, maybe half the size.
That didn’t surprise me. There wasn’t much in the way of actual trees, or even Dire-Tubaria mushrooms down here in Great Chasm; so lumber was scarce. I could tell by the rough craftsmanship, the Crimson Company had to make do with what was around. Like the way-stones that Mikasi spotted earlier.
It was an ‘undershot’ waterwheel. The water screw pulled water out of the pond, but was only tall enough to pour the water out against, and below, the wheel’s paddles. This wasn’t a great design, but I understood this was the best they could do with what they had on hand. The way-stones were a clever addition. They were stuck in the middle of the wheel.
Way-stones can attach to metal but they can also attract or repel each other depending on which side you use. Some genius had the bright idea to use that last part to their advantage. The way-stones in the waterwheel arranged, with the opposing sides facing each other. That way, they acted like gears and let the waterwheel turn easier with the weak water flow.
It was all still a really fragile design, but I wasn’t one to judge, given how many times I’ve had to throw something together in an emergency. Mikasi was right. Moving those would shut things down, but would get everyone’s attention right away.
A crunch of footsteps on gravel again grabbed my attention. Unlike before, this was a closer. A lot closer, on the other side of my hiding place, to my right. Somehow, the fog had grown even thicker, so I couldn’t see anything more than odd shapes and shadows. But that was enough.
The shadow of a tall man loomed large in the gray mist. He looked as big as a door and just as wide. A whisper of his sword leaving its scabbard shot a chill along my spine. I tensed, clutching the pulpy leaves in a tight fist.
“Damn fog ghosts,” the man snarled in a deep voice before he sheathed his sword.
At the mention of a ghost, I stared hard at the soup-like fog around me. It was fog. Thick, but just fog. Then I saw it.
Ten paces away from me, a milky-white figure materialized out of nothing. It, or he, was silvery-white with gaunt features, wearing clothing I’d only seen in old portraits. Here, it was the uniform of a high-ranking soldier from the Ancient Order.
I kept still as stone, crouched behind my shelter of crates. After a few seconds, my legs ached, but I ignored the pain as best as I could. Better a pain in my legs than deal with an irate sentry and that thing in the fog.
The ghost materialized in and out of view. It drifted close to a barrel and continued past it. A light crust of frost appeared over the top of the barrel. Slowly, the ghost wandered in the open space between the sentry and me. It, or he, glanced at the Crimson Company mercenary, but didn’t move closer. Instead, the ghost watched the man thoughtfully. Another ten seconds passed before the sentry walked away into the fog. The specter trailed a few paces behind, with a pensive expression.
Ghosts. Fog full of ghosts. Why did it have to be ghosts?
I waited until the fog swallowed them both, before I shuddered hard enough to almost knock me over. After a deep breath, I forced myself to focus on the water wheel, then got to work.
Moving fast, I darted out from cover and over to the base of the wheel. After a quick glance at the maze of ropes that held it all together, I traced down three that looked the most important. I tugged at those until they came loose. Not all the way untied, but enough so they would give out on their own in a few minutes. After that, I pulled loose a rope around the nearest way-stone, just to make the pending disaster that much worse.
I’ll admit, I rushed the work, so it wasn’t at all my best. But I wanted out of that camp and the haunted fog more than anything. I checked the loose knots once more, then smeared mimic tree oil over the knots, rope, and the surrounding wood.
I almost jumped out of my skin. The last thing my nerves needed at that moment was a voice hissing behind me. Caught between running or fight, my instincts went with the latter. I spun around, ducking low, and swung a hard uppercut with my right fist.
Lucky for both of us, Mikasi was as nimble as his pet cheetah. He jumped out of the way, hands up in front of him. Nicodemus tensed, back arched, ears alert for a threat. I was glad the cat didn’t have me on that list.
“Hey! Stop! It’s me!” Mikasi hissed. “Did you get it done?”
“Yes,” I whispered back, exasperated. “All done. Now…”
A crunch of rock to our right interrupted me. I tossed the crumpled mimic leaves aside, then waved Mikasi down behind the crates next to me while I pulled off my gloves. To his credit, he didn’t ask. He simply grabbed Nicodemus before the two of them joined me behind my tiny shelter. I held up a finger in front of my lips to warn Mikasi to keep quiet.
The sentry had returned, but someone else had come with him. Honestly, it was the last person I wanted around.
“You. Jameson, isn’t it?” Vincent Vargas snapped.
“Jameson, aye. Is there trouble, Captain?”
I peeked around the crates. Through the fog, I watched Vargas, dressed for combat, rest his right hand on the pommel of a dagger at his belt. He nervously tapped it with his fingers.
“She’s nearby, I just know it.”
Jameson shook his head with a sigh.
“Captain, if I may? You dumped her in the middle of nowhere to die. If the heat, or that spell the baron cast, didn’t get her, the coyotes did. Tela Kioni is dead by now.”
Vargas shook his head with a stern frown.
“No. It would take more than that to kill her. She’ll have found a way out of that. That’s why I wanted to leave people back in Talabrae’s Deep to keep watch. Tela Kioni is nearby… somewhere. Just like I know, we’re digging in the wrong place.”
Miksai started mouthing words at me in alarm. I waved a hand frantically at him to be still. Nearby, Vargas continued.
“I do wish the baron would listen to reason.” Vargas rubbed a hand over his face and let out a ragged sigh. “Have you seen anything?”
Jameson shook his head.
“Just the same fog ghosts as always.”
The two men continued their conversation while they walked off into the mists. I didn’t make out the rest of what they said and didn’t care to. What I heard was more than enough.
“Go!” I hissed in Mikasi’s ear. “We’re got to warn the others, we’re already out of time!”