Amates 21, 1277. Probably still mid-morning. Definitely still no coffee. At least the ground had stopped shaking.
Nothing says ‘hurry’ like a cave in.
The earthquake rattled the hallway and split open the bricks. Chunks of stone rained from the ceiling, then shattered close to my feet. I hugged the wall while I ran. Jagged cracks in the floor chased me until it was too dark to see them.
After a few seconds, the earthquake stopped. Darkness buried the hallway and everything near me in an inky blackness.
Panic flared and that ugly thought of being trapped returned. It battered at me and tried to take root in my head, this time with more enthusiasm. My heart hammered in my chest. Every breath was an effort. I clenched my jaw, kept one hand on the chilly wall, and tried to search for any hint of light.
A faint crack of light peeked through the darkness behind me. It was enough to show me that the ceiling had collapsed. Somewhere, past all that, lay the hole where I first fell in.
Bitter, sour dust hung in the air and clung to my skin. That light fog of powder filled the hallway. I sneezed, followed by a cough. The dry dust, with the intense darkness and stale air, made the hallway feel tight. I had no choice but to keep moving.
My hopes for escape rested on experience with other ruins; mostly Ancient Order ruins.
Ruins are nothing more than old buildings that people used for some practical purpose at one time. It’s true that some contain ‘secret doors’ for many reasons. But the ‘long, twisty, maze of passages’ you read about? That’s a myth. Ancient cultures made buildings with a purpose. All hallways lead to somewhere.
The problem was, I couldn’t see. Not really.
After a few minutes, or even an hour, I had my first break of luck. My left hand found a door.
I ran my hands along the rough surface to search for a handle. The wood was dry, like everything else down here. It wasn’t easy to determine the door’s age; lack of light made it even harder. But, if old enough, I might could break through.
It felt old. But Ancient Order old? I wasn’t sure. Wood can rot in a place like this. It just takes a lot longer.
The door felt intact but brittle when I lightly tapped on it. Four centuries? Five? That was my best guess based on the stonework I saw before the ceiling collapsed. So not Ancient Order, but still old. If this was part of a mine, it could be a storeroom. A storeroom meant a chance to find something for light, like a candle, a lantern, or something to tie together for a torch.
I found the lock and handle after a second.
“High Cresting Tides, you’d better not be locked,” I snarled.
I hauled the door open with a little effort. It was a little swollen, which I thought was odd, but this wasn’t the time to figure out why. After a deep breath, I kept to my ‘left hand on the wall’ rule and stepped past the doorway.
The room lit up. A sharp sizzle echoed with the sudden light. I bit back a sharp yell and covered my eyes, though I cried just a little from relief.
This wasn’t a storeroom.
It was a workshop. At least, it looked like a workshop to me.
Old, dry crates were stacked against one wall with faded letters scrawled on their sides. I couldn’t read the language, and it didn’t look like an Ancient Order dialect. It looked closer to one of the miner’s cants of ancient Dwarven clans. It surprised me to see it here.
Bags and forgotten debris were scattered across three short wooden tables against the wall to my left. Metal scraps, cut lengths of rope, and broken wood lay on the floor. A wide, cold forge dominated the far wall. Faded papers with barely legible sketches hung from a wooden board to the left of that forge.
But it was the lights that really got my attention.
Fist-sized orbs hung in each corner of the room. They hummed while giving off a dim light, no brighter than a fading sunset. For a room ten or fifteen paces wide, it was enough.
The room’s only door turned out to be as old as I thought, but lacked any of the Ancient Order’s typical style. It was plain, almost utilitarian. Even though the door may not have been Ancient Order make, the room was with its smooth walls and impossibly graceful overhead ceiling arches.
I slowly stepped further inside, a wide grin on my face. A faint, pungent smell of brewed tinctures and other herbal ingredients hung in the air.
“An alchemist’s workshop,” I said excitedly. “Maybe an herbalist’s? No. An alchemist or artificer. An herbalist wouldn’t have a bucket of parts lying around.”
The smells were sharp, and I stifled a sneeze. After I rubbed my nose, I hurried over to the closest orb. I needed light, and I recognized those from other Windtracer reports.
Sun Orbs, like the ones on the wall, were a common sight in many Ancient Order ruins. They varied in size, and often no longer worked. Ancient Order records suggested a special type of enchanted stones fueled the Orbs. Those stones could absorb and hold sunlight or lightning for decades, sometimes longer.
No one knew how to make those enchanted stones anymore, not even the Helians who had a habit of re-purposing Ancient Order designs. Finding one Sun Orb, much less four, that still worked? That was rare.
A chain suspended each orb from a hook attached to the wall. They were pretty high up, but I could still reach them. I removed one from its hook with extreme care.
“You are the prettiest thing I’ve seen all day.”
I think if I grinned any harder, I would have sprained my jaw.
The orb was smooth with a clouded, glassy surface. It felt cold but wasn’t heavy. In fact, it barely had any weight at all. Most of the weight was the chain used to dangle it from the wall hook.
It hummed cheerfully in my hands while it gave off its sunset glow. The sound was like a dozen distant bees working away at a clump of yellow Honey Hynoxi flower-vines. It was a little mesmerizing.
I shook my head, then forced myself to concentrate on the surrounding room. Now that I had light, I could rummage around for anything to help me escape.
The best I had after a quick search was a pile of almost nothing. I had found old broken brass gears and cracked wooden rope spools piled in open wooden crates. Dusty lengths of chain, brittle rope, and small bags of ore topped my list of supplies. The only thing that had any potential was old, torn sections of a parchment map that I found tacked to one wall.
I cleared a space on one worktable, then laid out the map pieces in a row. They had obviously been part of some larger map. Age, and more than likely prairie weasels, had done most of the map in. What was left depicted chambers and tunnels of what I thought was this complex. Only, what I saw there made little sense.
The tunnels on the map crossed over each other like a spider’s web. I was close to the surface, so either there were a lot more tunnels below me or there was something on that map I just wasn’t seeing. Frustrated, I held the map piece against my Sun Orb to get a better look at the details.
Numbers and faint lines appeared like ghosts on the parchment. A few notes, written in what I think were more miner’s cant dialect, lined the margins.
“That’s why you don’t make any sense,” I said with a heavy sigh. “Those aren’t all tunnels. Most of those are guidelines.”
A wild idea sprang to mind, and I quickly held the other pieces against the orb. Each drawing had similar lines and numbers. I rearranged the torn pieces on the table. This time, I matched them as close as I could, using those guidelines I found.
They weren’t a perfect match; I needed the rest of the map for that, but it was enough. I suddenly understood what I missed before.
“This room is movable,” I said, amazed. “Like at the Natoce Ruins with that lever and pulley system to move entire rooms around inside that giant underground shaft.”
I turned my back on the map pieces to take a good, long look at the workshop. This time I saw the little details I overlooked before in my rush to find some light.
A thin layer of dust covered everything. Large cobwebs lined two corners and decorated one side of a workbench table. Half-broken gears, empty stoneglass vials, and a few ruined books lay strewn across the floor among bits of gravel. Not even the forge was spared.
Thin, ugly cracks ran along its length, even into the pair of narrow chimneys that vanished into the ceiling. That forge would never work again in that condition.
Light gouges or scratch marks marred both forge and walls. They looked like claw marks. Large claw marks. There weren’t any bloodstains, so whatever happened took place a long time ago.
“There was a ‘last stand’ here,” I whispered. “Whoever it was, they didn’t go quietly.” I shuddered, then frowned. “Just like at Natoce.”
The Windtracer expedition to Natoce wasn’t a disaster, but it was a lesson to take older ruins seriously. What they found there, those things from the deep pit, were lethal. That expedition had a full group. Here? I was alone. If this place was anything like that, I was in more trouble than I thought.
Just then, the room quaked. It hurled cracked pottery, loose gears, and more to the floor. I grabbed the table to stay on my feet. The shaking stopped after a moment. I scowled at the room while my eyes wandered over the debris.
“If this place uses movable platforms with buildings on them, how is it having a normal earthquake?”
I held my light higher, then glanced at the open door with the thought of leaving.
“This place shouldn’t ‘shake’. It should sway like crates held up in a cargo net.”
That’s when the floor dropped out from under me.
I didn’t fall far. The entire room had dropped a hand-breadth or so. It was just enough to pitch me to the floor along with anything else left on the nearby tables. I caught my Sun Orb before it met an ugly demise against the unforgiving stone tiles.
The motion of the room, and my fall, was all too familiar. It reminded me of the last time I was aboard a ship during high winds at sea. I ignored the fresh bruises along my legs while I stumbled to my feet.
I shook my head and scooped up the scattered map pieces. After that, I headed for the door.
“Those aren’t earthquakes,” I said to myself. “That’s the platform ropes giving way.”
A chorus of faint giggles stopped me at the doorway. There was the unmistakable skitter of claws on stone nearby. The workshop lurched again, this time sideways to the right.
That’s when I heard the distant, faint, ragged sound of a saw tearing through rope.