Looking For Light



 

Chapter One


  “It’s the most beautiful thing under the sun, and the sun don’t even know ‘bout this.”   Arnott Gard waves his lantern slowly, the light from its fire catching on walls of stone so smooth they look like black ice. Every square inch of the cavern is flecked with silver, gold and blue from the minerals ground into the stone floor by long-vanished rivers.   His voice echoes differently from what he’s heard for the last few hours now, too. It doesn’t bounce off narrow tunnel walls and back into his ears, but instead fades into the dark at the edges of his lantern light. This chamber is bigger than any of the others so far — one so large that even Arnott’s lantern can’t spot the furthest edges.   Most of the others push past him, eager to stretch out and feel empty air after so many hours of craggy, claustrophobic tunnels. While everyone else hollers into the void with a sort of glee that’s born from countless hours stuck beneath miles of earth, Kasper Penn saunters in last. Not a drop of yearning in him for anything except the tobacco he stuffs into his pipe and lights. “Real pretty poetry, Arnott. You keep blasting holes in the tunnels like you’re doing, and one of us just might survive to put that shit on your headstone.”   “Look.” Arnott points to the strange device he dropped next to the chamber’ entrance. The auger is cannon-shaped and covered in fragile hoses and glass tubes; it can barely be carried by one man, and only Arnott was built for that kind of weight. He might be a decade out of Ghal Pelor ’s city guard, but he’s not soft yet. “That damn thing has one setting, and like everything else those Bird Folks build, it don’t do subtle.   “Their junk has two settings. On and broken. Might be our saving grace that it’s out of charges now.” Carlo Bastel pulls himself away from his canteen just long enough to lampoon Arnott Gard’s use of Tengu mining equipment for maybe the tenth time now.   “Oh, didn’t know you weren’t a fan. Should have said so before.” Kasper’s tone drips with exhausted sarcasm. “Anyway, what now?” he asks while checking the oil left in his lantern. He remembers Bastel talking about something real miners called The Dark.   The Dark has always been there, but it’s on people’s minds after what happened at a silver mine near High Point Township News said three miners were lost, ran out of lantern oil, and that it took four days for rescuers to dig them out. When they did, only one of the team was still alive. He went mad in the dark. Beat his friends to death with the empty lantern and wore his fingers ragged on the stone trying to dig his way out. Kasper immediately fills his light’s reserve back to full and pushes the grim thought to the back of his mind.   The smallest of their number scampers up to the top of a nearby boulder and takes out something that looks to the rest of them like a telescope. Kasper knows better, though. Flefneight has been leading digs for longer than any of them has been alive, and each of the little pockets, pouches and bags he’s carrying have been filled with gear made for exactly this environment. The old Gnomes doesn’t so much as flinch while the rest all take their break. His nostrils don’t even curl when Bekkrad takes a pungent piss uncomfortably close by.   “Either we’re going back by Welch and helping move rocks or …,” Kasper gestures into the dark ahead and all around them.   Ianston Flefneight simply groans and slides off his perch. “Digging ourselves out works just fine. We can spend a few days at it, and by the time we see sunlight, some elf patrol will be waiting to welcome us with leg irons and a one-way trip to the dungeons in Melanthris . I only left those three idiots back there to dig because I didn’t need any more of you naysayin’ in my ear while I try to make us rich!” Flefneight’s scarred cheeks and dead eye seem to make his argument all the sterner, and the plan of action all the more obvious to Kasper. He has no room to complain until the dig takes half his face, too.   “Great, sure. We’re either making a profit, getting arrested or dying down here. And arrested is the least likely, right?”   Flefneight grumbles to himself and turns away to start plotting the course forward. Bekkrad fastens his breeches back up around his plump dwarven belly and slaps Kasper on the back. “Look, when you’re cashing in at the counting house back in Frial , all this is just gonna be a distant memory, my friend. Besides, like Flefneight said, all these old cave systems have rules. If we can find whatever river carved this place out, then we should have us a way to the surface. So, let’s go find a river.”   Kasper sighs heavily and watches the rest of the miners start packing up. It sounded like a much simpler job when they all met at Dullivan’s Drop back in Frial. He remembers thinking how these sort of clandestine jobs are usually discussed in some dark backstreet or in the shadows of some rarely visited tavern, but Dullivan’s Drop was neither. It was a bright morning, and the immaculately kept inn was filled with eager breakfast seekers and the clatter of tableware on plates. He’d been involved in a lot of sordid activities since finally making a name for himself but none had ever come together during a busy brunch in the most affluent section of a heavily patrolled city.   Bekkrad Skognel’s uncle was the man behind the whole expedition. Bekkrad and old Kloglem were cut from the same mold, no mistaking it. But time had not been kind to the elder dwarf Where Bekkrad was a plump grape, the sort that’s ripe and full of flavor, Kloglem is a shriveled raisin that lived and died on the vine. He told them about precious minerals and gold that ran deep beneath the highlands north of Melanthris, part of the aloof elves’ kingdom but far from any prying eyes. A place called the Bitter Depths. So remote was this cave that calling it part of their border territory would be generous. Kloglem showed them maps, charts, old dwarven almanacs predicting the yields that could be lying in wait for them. Kasper only paid attention to how easy a mark it would be. He was no stranger to mines and navigating caves. It seemed like the sort of oversight that could make him richer than the merchant-barons back home in Ghal Pelor.   No part of his risk-reward calculus ever factored in the possibility of inexperienced labor hands or an accident with Tengu digging equipment — and certainly not the collapse of the cavern’s entrance. Slowly dying in this cave with a menagerie of Frial’s most-wanted was far from what Kasper expected to be doing with his week. In fact, the only thing that wasn’t a surprise about this turn of events was that someone else’s incompetence was the thing would kill him.


 

Chapter Two


  Meanwhile, on the surface...   “Rocks ain’t going anywhere, might as well tackle them with a full belly instead of an empty one.”   “Hey, try telling Flefneight that’s why we haven’t dug them out yet. Sorry boss, had a craving for quail eggs and biscuits, figured you could wait,” Jaxon Dempster shouts to the stout little man rummaging through provisions as he wiped sweat from his brow. Jaxon thought Harland Welch was a Halfling the first time they met back at Dullivan’s, based on the heaping of hash browns and sausages on his plate and because of his size. The rotund little man barely hits Jaxon’s waist. Despite all the evidence, though, Welch is human. The short, sweaty and greasy-palmed sort, but human nonetheless.   Welch reluctantly leaves the sack with only a small chunk of cheese broken off the wheel they bought back in Frial. He shrugs and mumbles something about multitasking before popping the morsel in his mouth and continuing on with the debris pile.   The light from the midday sun shines into the cavern opening and down the few dozen meters to the collapse, where Berton Wylie is working frantically. The Tengu resonance drill lays heavy on the ground where he dropped it. Every so often, the canon-shaped device emits flickering green light or a low static buzz. Each stone Wylie pulls aside is followed by a silent prayer to any of the gods that survived the Silence. He prays that the next stone won’t have a familiar face beneath it.   Welch joins him at the rubble pile and digs in without hesitation. “Wouldn’t worry so much about it, lad. The gear that bird-folk make is fickle even under the best stars.” Wylie remembers the breakfast at Dullivan’s and how Welch said he needed to consult his fortuneteller before agreeing to anything.   Welch seemed pretty excited when he was told the stars were right for this type of job. Now, in the dark, that fortune weighs heavily on Wylie.   He tried to use the second Tengu Auger they brought to blow through the debris; it only seemed to make things worse. After the screech of the machine died down, all anyone heard was quaking and collapsing stone in its wake. Wylie’s best of intentions might very well have cost Flefneight and his men their lives.   “Well, if it’s all the same, maybe we can keep digging as fast as possible anyway? Maybe the boss will be feeling generous and give us a bonus.” Wylie knows that’s not true, but if it helps motivate Welch to dig a little quicker then it’s a lie worth telling.   Jaxon takes his last breath of fresh air and joins the other two at the rubble pile. He plays along with their small talk well enough, yet can’t help but to indulge his imagination in regards to a backup plan. If they do find the crew dead and clear the path, the wealth would be split just three ways… or maybe one.


 

Chapter Three


  Meanwhile... Below   Nothing. It’s a strange sound to describe. The complete absence of any noise aside from their own boots on the cavern floor. The silence between steps is a terrible, terrible thing and Kasper can’t bear more than a moment of it. “Anything else yet?”   Flefneight said earlier to keep an eye out for corridors. They’d more likely than not have been caused by flowing water, and flowing water is the enemy of even the hardest stone.   “Maybe? Boss, what do you think?” Bastel’s lantern beam flashes across a breech in the wall, jagged and rough, the floor of it covered by pebbles. Flefneight looks it over briefly before shaking his head no.   “Doesn’t look like water carved that one. Could be a pressure break or a wound left by some old quake. Might be something, but more likely it just narrows more and more ‘til no path’s left. That’s a bad place to be.”   Kasper and Bekkrad exchange a worried glance at that last bit of dire wisdom. The same vision plagues their thoughts: a clog of bodies, panicked breaths and frantic scrambling to turn about. This is the fourth passage they’ve had to abandon so far. Without the pocket dangling from Arnott’s belt loop it would be impossible to know how much time has passed in this new cavern. “Bekkrad, Can’t you… I don’t know, sense anything? Where to go? If we’re on the right track? Anything helpful?” Kasper says, breaking up the dreadful return of the quiet. “Oh, ‘cause I’m a dwarf and we’re all ‘one with the stone’ or something, huh?” Bekkrad bites back. “I grew up in the same neighborhood as you! Closest I’ve ever come to spending an hour underground is sneaking into your parent’s wine cellar with your sister! Ah, good ole’ days those were.”   Kasper and Bekkrad came up on the streets of Terrace Row in Ghal Pelor together. Running rum for low-level hucksters to avoid the tariffs and taxes was a profitable venture for two kids from Doxley Street. That led to smuggling weapons, artifacts from before the Fae War, even moving manacite for the Black Thorn Society. Their friendly rivalry turned into a certain kind of antagonistic friendship that both have come to appreciate over the years. And now, here in these caves, it offers a small bit of protection against the growing anxiety clawing at the edge of their every thought.   “Oh, hey! Everyone! Look at this” Arnott calls from up ahead. Kasper has always been thankful for people to distract him from the full extent of danger they’re in. He didn’t protest one bit as the big man wandered off. Figured he’d be noisy enough on the way down to the bottom of any deadfall that it would be a solid warning for everyone else.   They follow his waving lantern to find him at the lip of another tunnel, yet something stands out about this one. Even the most inexperienced among them can make out the little chisel marks and scratches. “This is different, yeah boss?”   Flefneight runs his boney fingers along one of the grooves and frowns. “This ain’t water and this ain’t an earth scar, either. This has been dug out.” “That’s great news, right?” Bastel’s excitement peppers every hopeful word. “Whatever did this probably also dug tunnels out of this damn place? Or at least knows the way out. This is good!”   “It’s an option, and it’s information,” Flefneight calmly says back. “Down here nothing is good news t’il ya see it with your own eyes.” Bekkrad waves his heavy hand at Flefneight’s pessimism. “We’ve been in this new cavern for over two hours now and still haven’t even seen one of the side walls yet. Searching this place will take forever. Someone dug this whole and by the looks of it, it goes pretty far. Lot of effort to dig something like this, I’m guessing. That probably means this is either the way out or the way to something pretty precious. I like both right now.”   “You’re not wrong.” Flefneight says. “Doesn’t mean this won’t get us just as killed as any other tunnel down here, but you’re not wrong. Keep your eyes open, though! We ain’t equipped to handle too much more going wrong.”   Kasper volunteers Arnott to take the lead, which he’s more than happy to do, joking blissfully about being able to get his hands on any treasures first. That’s another thing Kasper appreciates in an idiot: consistency.


 

Chapter Four


  Delving Deeper...   The pocket watch ticks on, minute after minute, eventually bleeding into a full hour. The crisscrossing scraps, gouges and scratches form an almost hypnotic pattern all around the men. Bastel mentioned seeing what he thought were repeating patterns in some of the markings, almost like writing hidden amongst the chaos. But none of them, especially Kasper, are eager to hear out his theories. There’s too much uncertainty hanging heavy around them. It’s not just one tunnel but a network of passages large and small that branch off this one, each of them seeming to spiral down or cascade further into the depths. Each was made by the same unknown tunnellers, and none offered any hints of wealth or escape.   Bekkrad chews on candied fruits he picked up from a waystation near Rylan Woods, and even though he sounds like a grazing cow, the treats add a bit of sweetness to the dead air. “A bath!” He announces to no one in particular. “Been tossing back and forth between what would be the first thing I do when we hit sunlight. Hot meal or a bath. It’s a bath for sure.”   “If your kin back in the homeland could hear you now…,” Arnott laughs. “Getting clean over getting a full belly.”   “You know, you all need to really broaden your minds when it comes to sterotypin’ a whole people. Some of us like being clean!”   “Hush, all of you! Look!” Flefneight cuts off their conversation and points with his lantern to a shimmering sparkle coming from the tunnel wall. It’s small at first, only a few flecks of silver. Yet, the vein seems to grow wider and spiral about the tunnel for a few meters as if who, or whatever, uncovered it was only interested in exposing the corkscrew pattern rather than harvesting it fully. The group’s lantern lights start spotlighting other patterns further down: more corkscrews and brilliant patterns splayed across the rock. Even the glittering core exposed geodes and veins of banded agate and quartz crystal. The further the team delves, the more there is to see until finally, the passage leads them into another yawning chamber. Its reach overwhelms the mind. The only difference between this one and the one Arnott found earlier is the light. There’s so much light.   Pale white-blue illumination radiates from fungal blooms high on the cavern ceiling and trail along distant walls. The light seems to come from tadpole-like beings that wriggle through slight streams in the stone floor. The waterways are no wider than a forearm but rage like a river to these tiny swimmers. Even the air is alive. Clouds of kaleidoscoping light twist and turn above, merging then breaking apart. They’re made of countless fungal spores carried by the subterranean breeze and chased by strange fireflies that make a meal of them.   Even the cynical Kasper and pragmatic Flefneight can’t help but stand in awe of this symphony of alien colors.   “I ain’t never seen anything like this,” Flefneight says while watching a jet of color swirl into some far-off corner of the cavern. “Not ever.”   A sharp noise shakes them all from their fugue. It sounds like the melodious buzz-piping of an onion flute more than anything, but before the men can even begin to guess at the origin, an answer makes itself clear. A creature stumbles awkwardly past them with all the speed of an excited toddler. The creature , no taller than a small dog on its hind legs, gives up chasing the firefly it had been occupied with to stare at them. Flefneight’s team sees something that can only be described as a mole and pangolin jumbled together, blessed with an extra set of arms. Its tiny scales are the color of polished gold; its eyes are like milky pearl, same as the nub-like claws at the end of each of wide palm. A small blue whip of a tongue flicks out from a narrow snout a few times toward the men before the creature cautiously, slowly and methodically starts to waddle in their direction.   “Come on, then!” Arnott drops his lantern and pulls two sharp daggers instead.   “What is wrong with you?” Bastel sighs. “Does it look dangerous?”   “Um, does it?” Arnott asks back, very honestly uncertain.   “No,” Flefneight says.   “Definitely not,” Kasper and Bekkrad echo each other.   Arnott’s commotion seems to wake two of the massive boulders nearby. They unfurrow and flex their plates, grumbling with every slow movement. They’re adult versions of whatever this pup is that’s standing only a few feet from Arnott now. The boulders are taller than an ogre, built like they could shrug the attacks of one, too. Their scaled armor is the color of slate. Their claws, three on each hand and long as short swords, twitch about slowly. They stare at the miners with eyes that glisten and sparkle like sunlight striking a rough diamond. Each of them honks and whistles with that same kazoo-like call the babe made, but deeper and with a rattle that vibrates in the ears of each of Flefneight ’s men. The behemoths taste the air with their whipping tongues for several long minutes before deciding whatever they found doesn’t seem to be a threat.   Bekkrad slowly gestures for Arnott to sheath his daggers and for everyone to look as harmless as possible despite the slowly encroaching shadows cast by the creatures. One creature stretches to full height and begins scanning the area, stabbing the air with its tongue. Bastel carefully gestures to a long scar on this one’s belly. It’s a serious wound that’s long since healed over. Yet, it’s a reminder to him that no matter how intimidating the mole creatures may be, there’s always something worse lurking down here.   The other adult flops down and crawls over to Bekkrad. Even at this height it still looms larger than a horse and makes him seem even smaller by comparison. Everyone stands frozen, jaws slowly dropping, as the second creature’s head bumps into the dwarf several times. Its tongue flutes out and slithers into Bekkrad’s provision pouch then snaps back with several pieces of his dried fruit.   “Hey! Um, sure have some,” Bekkrad looks to the rest of the team for comfort, but there’s none to be had.   Pup and Scar Belly both stare on at their inquisitive friend as it slurps the fruits into its mouth and swallows them whole. Its eyes go wide as it looks over to the others and answers their silent curiosity with a long, loud honk.   Pup and Scar Belly scamper over, full of excitement, and begin digging into the pouch as well to slurp up fruits.   “I hope you brought more,” Bastel whispers.   “I hope when you run out, they don’t go after the pound of em’ in your gut.” Kasper’s version of comforting his friend is less than welcome right now.   When the last of Bekkrad’s fruits are gone, the first of the bold fruit thieves lets out a disappointed blart and begins to saunter off into the wilderness with Scar Belly and Pup close behind. Fruit Thief stops for a moment while Pup and Scar Belly continue on. Fruit Thief honks several times at the miners and gestures with its narrow snout in what looks like a request to follow.   They shrug and exchange worried or curious glances before coming to a silent consensus to tag along.   “Brilliant,” Kasper sighs. “Hope they’re not just leading us into a giant boiling pot of water.”   “Hey!” Arnott grumbles. “These guys are all ok so far. You know, not everything is out to kill ya? Some folks mean well.”   “If you say so,” Kasper instinctively checks to make sure all his weapons are ready for the draw and follows on.


 

Chapter Five

  Back At The Cavern Entrance...   “Clear!” Welch’s shout echoes in the tunnel. “It looks clear!” He points to a gap in the rubble and the open tunnel behind it. His lantern lights up the darkness when he jams his arm through. It reveals a small cleaning, maybe a half dozen meters of open space at best and then more fallen stones.   “Damn… must of collapsed in waves. No telling how many piles there are,” Wylie says grimly.   Jaxon peeks through as well and spots something: a drop in the floor that he quickly directs their attention to. Something heavy must have dislodged from the tunnel ceiling and hit a fragile spot on the floor and crashed through. A rough ragged hole takes up about half of the open space between stone piles.   It doesn’t take much for the men to clear enough space to cautiously edge toward the drop and cast a beam of light inside. Their lanterns find a large pile of shattered stone and dirt, as well as the remains of the boulder that must have fallen here.   “Um… so,” Welch takes a long, deep breath, “that looks like a pretty big area down there.” The others can tell he’s working up to asking a tough question.   Wylie asks for him. “You thinking there’s a good chance that tunnel connects with the one Flefneight and the boys went down? Might be a good way to catch up to them and get them outta here right quick, eh?”   “Yep, that’s what I was thinking,” Welch nods.   Jaxon starts anchoring rope to the heaviest rubble and gathering up extra gear that will allow him to get out of the hole if it ends up being a dead end. Wylie gathers all the extra water he can carry and any medical supplies that will fit, too.   Welch watches the darkness in the drop while the others prepare their equipment. Shadows, debris and dust work together to clog any clear view. Yet despite it all, he swears there’s something down there. Something moving.   Jaxon is the first down. He stays in the comforting beams of lantern light from above and quickly draws his hatchet and readies his own light source. Rock particulate dances in the beams of light, making seeing anything more than a few dozen feet ahead difficult at best. What he does see isn’t particularly interesting though — wide tunnels, fractured stone, adjoining passages and dark grey surfaces. He waves the others down and waits for them to settle into the dark before pointing toward the path that should, in theory, lead in the direction of Flefneight.   “I’ll take the front. Welch, you get the rear, and Wylie, stay in the middle and stay close. You have all food and first aid.” Jaxon says with a rather grim authority that no one cares to question.   There’s no appetite for conversation among any of them, only a need to get this over with as soon as possible. When Flefneight and the others originally took to the caves, the surface team breathed a silent sigh of relief. Better them than me, all of them thought. Now that they too are steeped in the narrow blackness, the only focus is being done with this, and quickly.   Except for Welch. Something else snags his attention for the briefest of moments. A slow, slick clicking noise from one of the side tunnels that rattles inside his ears.   And it’s growing louder.


 

Chapter Six


  With The Miners Trapped Below...   If any of them bothered to look at Bastel’s pocket watch, they’d have seen another hour go by since they began their walk with the mole creatures, but the idea never crosses their minds. Even the growing ache in their feet is pushed to the back of their thoughts in the face of such alien wonder all around them.   The deeper they go, the more there is to see. Veins of glittering minerals encased in ancient rock. Fungal clusters so alive and complex they almost seem to behave like animals. Arnott even swears he saw a walking mushroom among the blooms and that it winked at him. Even though the others wave it off as nonsense, he’s happy enough to have seen it whether they believed him or not.   They even watch the way Pup stays close to Fruit Thief. It must be the child’s mother, for only a mother would have the patience to endure it crawling all over her, nuzzling against her and riding on her back. There’s a sweetness to how she coddles and coos for the little creature that transcends species. She’s a mother and even in the Bitter Depths, there is love.   After a long while, Bekkrad is the first one to speak. Hearing anything other than the sounds of the caverns is momentarily jarring. He points at a large standing stone, similar to a crude pillar in shape, and waves them all over. It’s wreathed in glowing fungus and covered in a chaotic jumble of scratches. Yet, there’s more too it than just that. Amid the gouges and other markings, there are more intricate images drawn in stone by careful hands.   A soft piping from Scar Belly announces the remarkably quiet presence of these hulking creatures. They’re watching the miners and tracing the height of the obelisk with their eyes.   “Watch out, watch out.” Bekkrad urges the rest of his comrades out of the way as Fruit Thief picks herself up on two legs and plods over to the rock. She gently caresses the stone, running claws along the many carved symbols and scratches with a reverent touch.   Their kind made this, and it tells a story.   The men watch as claw, tongue and arms all work together to explain the stone’s tale in a language the men never know. Fruit Thief taps on a cluster of marks near the bottom at figures that could almost be her kind, simple as they may look. Her nails softly drag along other symbols further up. She paws at a series of scratches around something that looks like a city and a figure made of the worst parts of serpent, squid and jellyfish. There’s no telling what she’s trying to say, but all of the men can tell by the way she holds out one open hand and quietly hoots that it’s a warning of some kind.   Bastel takes out a journal and silverpoint to scribble down everything. “I don’t know whag she’s saying but this is… This is amazing. We might be the first people to ever hear this — whatever it is.”   “What’s that gonna be worth?” Kasper leans in to quietly ask.   “To certain people, a great deal. But, to the right kind of people — like myself — priceless,” Bastel answers with a sneer. “Some things are more important than gold, you know.”   “Haven’t seen those things yet, but I’ll keep an eye out.”   Fruit Thief’s gestures continue higher up the stone. She taps once on another symbol of the city and then points at her face. She slowly closes her eyes to mimic sleeping. Further along the stone, there’s more she has to say but none of it makes much sense to them. That is until Fruit Thief points out a trail of creatures drawn in stone that look very human, aside from the sharp little triangular pips where ears would be. The creatures follow a path toward the sleeping city.   “Elves you reckon? Elves made it this far down?” Arnott asks.   “Maybe? They are old and this is their territory,” Flefneight says while pointing to the surface above.   “There were rumors of exiled houses. Traitors to the elven crown who fought with the fae. If those are elves, they may not have come by choice,” Bastel informs everyone without even once looking up from his notes.   Fruit Thief’s story becomes more frantic and Pup soon crawls over to bury his snout in his mother’s fur. She shows them those pointy-eared figures with forked spears, things that look like nets and mole-creatures in crudely drawn piles.   Scar Belly breaks his silence to sigh heavily and rake at the cavern floor.   Fruit Thief’s claws pass by symbols of her kind, far from the sleeping city and few in number. Across the stone now are more pictures of the pointy ears and their forks, followed by her dead kin.   “Hunted probably?” Kasper adds.   The final image at the top, haloed by the scratch-words of Fruit Thief’s language, is the city again. She gestures to her eyes once more but shows them slowly open, them points to the small pointy-eared figures now with strange loops all around them. Her attention shifts back to the base of the stone, where Pup helps her dig something up from the rubble.   Chains.   Strange chains made of some black metal none of the men had ever seen before. She then points back to the loops again while rattling the chains.   “Whatever happened in that city,” Flefneight says slowly while looking over his team, “seems like something woke up, and those hunters got what they deserved.”   Scar Belly honks and uses his long head to suggest they carry on now. Pup climbs back on his mother’s back while Fruit Thief buries the chains again before following her mate. Fruit Thief stops only to flick her tongue at the men and silently ask that they continue to follow. It seems to be the only option they have. Bastel is the last to leave the stone, though. His mind is steeped in the idea that Tairos’ history runs deeper than anyone could have imagined. While nations were clashing above to carve out the world that exists, an entire world was taking shape beneath their feet.   He claps his journal closed and wonders for a moment about that city and what mistakes its inhabitants must have made to awaken it. Would any nation above have done better?   What little he knows of history suggests the answer is no.


 

Chapter Seven


  Elsewhere in the Bitter Depths...   “It was coming from here. Stop looking at me like I’m crazy, Jaxon!” Welch shouts while his partner circles the small chamber with sword drawn and eyes scouring every possible nook.   Jaxon shrugs. “Look, maybe you heard something, maybe you didn’t, but nobody is here.”   Wylie fans his lantern around, spotting the same empty channels that connect to the room Jaxon pointed out already. Despite the clammy chill down here, Wylie sweats. The other two argue about what’s here or not here, but Wylie can’t tear his eyes away from the dark passages all around the men. He’s only half-sure which one Welch led them down to get here, and that thought worries him far more than any phantom sounds.   “Maybe we should just get going?” Wylie says while hoping one of his companions will point the way back with certainly and put an end to dreadful thoughts.   “We came down to find Flefneight and the others, right? If they ended up down here, then great, we’re done all the sooner. We can’t leave ‘til we know one way or the other though,” Wylie says.   “Flefneight!” Jaxon yells into one of the empty tunnels. “Arnott!” He shouts in another before moving to a third narrow opening and calling for Bekkrad with still no answer. “No one’s here, kid. Whatever you heard, it’s in your head. I’d be surprised if there’s so much as a tunnel rat down here.”   Jaxon shines his lantern down another corridor, ready to call for Kasper, but only a few loud syllables manage to tumble from his lips. Something stands only a few perilous steps ahead of Jaxon: a creature dressed in strange reflective black armor, armor that looks more like beetle chitin than metal. It’s shaped like a man and stands just as tall as Jaxon, but it’s impossible to know what’s inside. The only clue is the bald, chalk-white scalp and veiny, jaundiced eyes that sit above a strange mask that covers the mouth. It looks equal parts machine and insect, this mask, and its many legs bite deep into the pale flesh around it, holding so tightly to his face that the device leaves tortured skin and old scars behind.   Wylie and Jaxon trace the height of the black staff the creature holds all the way to the zenith, to a sharp and serrated fork that lurks above.   “We… we’re looking for friends. We don’t… um, we’re not here to hurt you.” Jaxon stumbles over his words while positioning his sword between him and the creatures in the tunnel. In the one short moment between moving his lantern and bringing his sword forward, the creature is upon him. Its yellow eyes swim through the shadows, and it’s soon standing chest-to-chest with Jaxon. The creature’s fork, once obscured, is now caught plainly in everyone’s lantern light. Ragged bits of Jaxon’s guts and spine drip to the floor, slippery and shiny in the dark tunnel. Whatever the blade is made of is anathema to flesh and bone; everything seems to slide from the weapon like cattle fat off a hot knife.   The creature steps past Jaxon and pulls its fork through the rest of the way. The other men hear a heavy weight slap the ground before smelling copper and fresh death. The creature’s free hand points toward both of the trembling men; it speaks with a voice both cruel and metallic. Neither of the men understand a word of what’s hissed. It all sounds harsh, gravelly and grating without a hint of mercy.   Wylie drops his own lantern to the ground and rips his dagger from its sheath. “Stop! Just stop! Whatever we did, whatever you want… you can have it!”   “Come on! Come on, come on, come on!” Wylie grabs Welch’s shoulder and starts dragging him toward the nearest tunnel, but that clicking noise quickly resurfaces before he can take more than a step. The path is blocked by another nightmare, this one not at all humanoid. It’s more like a beetle the size of bear and held together by bony hooks and alien horror. Four of its spindle limbs carry it across the cavern floor quickly. The two largest terminate in heavy, slashing hooks that bite into the rock. The creature peppers the air with screech-clicks that only grow louder until the men’s ears ache under every oppressive decibel.   Jaxon’s killer seems unphased as he signals for the monster to advance on them. The closer the thing gets, the more hideous details comes into sight. Nestled within the bulk of its shell and safely behind the crushing scythes is a beak-like organ that chitters at breakneck speed while a cluster of red eyes drinks up the men’s panicked screams.   “What do you want? What do you want! Please! Please!” Wylie swipes wildly at the beetle, but it feels more like striking an iron bar than flesh that can be injured. After a fourth failed effort, the beak shoots several feet forward and clamps down on the wrist of Wylie’s sword arm before pulling back again into its setting. The pain is slow compared to the lightening-like alacrity of the creature’s attack. Wylie hears his bent dagger hit the rock below, then looks at the tattered stump of an arm that’s left behind. Only a few working fingers remain and the skin… what little is left is hot with blood and throbbing pain. The rest was degloved and disappeared into the dark with the beak that took it.   Wylie doubles back and mouths a whispered apology to Welch before vanishing down one of the tunnels. The lone miner stumbles a few steps backward and falls into the growing pool of Jaxon’s blood. He drags himself backward through the still-warm mess before butting up against a wall. “Wh. Wha. What do you want? Plea…se,” he pants out, barely able to string coherent words together.   The beetle halts in its advance. The master holds one nailed finger up that stays the otherwise creature’s relentless advance. Soon, the beetle slinks back into the shadows that it crawled from, obeying some unseen command. Wylie watches as the master walks closer to him now. His feet don’t make a single sound as they hit the stone floor. In fact, it is only when his feet step in the red puddle of blood that a small sound makes this ghost seem real. The master then sinks down like a perched shrike beside Wylie; a faint rasping sound comes from that mask that only now can Welch hear.   “What… What do want?!”   The master cocks its head at the weakly uttered question before slowly reaching into some pouch at its back and pulling something forth: a severed and bloody hand unlike anything Wylie’s seen before. Three long claws rise off the palm; the rest is coated in hard grey scales like some kind of armored mole.   The master drops the limb next to Wylie and looks him squarely in the eye for a long quiet moment before speaking a single word, one Wylie understands perfectly.   “Want.”


 

Chapter Eight


While The Miners Are Making Camp...   Flefneight draws from his birchwood pipe and lets out a heavy cloud of ruddy red smoke. The Tassleweed vapors warm his lungs and calm his thoughts while he watches the rest of his people set up provisions and muster together anything comfortable enough to become a makeshift bedroll. Their feet ache and their stomachs demand some kind of proper meal.   Their guides seem to have understood as well and stopped to graze on some kind of rust-colored mushrooms growing alongside the nearby trickle of a stream. Bastel is doing his best to play the good ambassador and speak with them. He’s shown them a map of Tairos’ surface and made a stair-case like gesture leading to the surface several times now. They reply the same way every time with a low honk and bleating noise followed by a nudge of the mushroom patch.   “I think they get it,” Arnott says. “They’re just hungry and tired, too.”   “I really don’t want to gamble on them understanding,” Bastel answers back. “A solid confirmation that they’re helping us get to the surface would be nice.”   A loud fluting bellow startles everyone, including the mole creatures. Bekkrad is holding a rolled-up parchment to his lips like a horn and smiling. Their guides’ eyes fix firmly on him while flicking their tongues in the air. “You’re just asking them the wrong way, that’s all.” He laughs before blowing into the paper horn again.   “The odds are at least 50/50 that they’re just marveling at how ridiculous he sounds,” Kasper whispers to his friend.   Bekkrad blows again, and the mole creatures pull themselves away from their meal to nudge him with their snouts and flick their tongues in his face. He then moves to each of his friends and taps them on the shoulder before unrolling his paper and gesturing to them again, pointing to the underside of the paper. The creatures’ shimmering eyes look toward all the miners then back to Bekkrad, who’s now pushing his finger through the bottom of the parchment and out to the top.   “That’s so simple, I’m sure they understood,” Bekkrad says, beaming with pride.   Scar Belly and Fruit Thief honk several times rather melodiously before turning back to their meal.   “That’s probably them laughing at you,” Kasper teases.   Pup stays behind, though, and looks around ‘til he spots what he’s been searching for, a large flat rock next to Flefneight. Pup scampers over on all his limbs and plops down next to the rock. With one long finger claw, he effortlessly carves drawings of all five of the miners into the stone. Flefneight watches and marvels at the strength even this little one has. Pup draws a horizontal line above them all and then scratches out a quick rendition of himself and his two parents. Finally, he draws a quick scratch that leads from his parents to the topside of the line. He finishes with a high-pitched blart before heading back to the mushrooms.   “Um… I’d say they got,” Arnott says, impressed by what even the baby is able to grasp. “They’re probably pretty annoyed you keep asking them the same question,” he says to Bastel.   “Well, they could have just led with that then!” He sighs, closes his journal and sits down for bite of jerky and biscuits. It doesn’t take long, though, before he’s back in his book scribbling down notes about the whole interaction.   With their bellies full and Bekkrad passing around his flask of Ackley Ale, the men are able to rest easy beneath a sky of stone and a rainbow of living stars.


 

Chapter Nine


  Meanwhile, Lost In The Dark...   His chest burns. Every beat of Welch’s heart feels as if it rattles his whole body.   Fear.   Fear owns him now. It has a way of making the familiar seem foreign and every impending moment feel wrought with fatal missteps.   Welch is lost in the dark now, desperate for the surface, for even a familiar passage.   The man’s lantern quivers in his grip and swings wildly in the dark. “Please, please, please,” he begs softly. From somewhere behind him, Welch can hear a loud, an anguished scream that echoes painfully long in these tunnels. It’s Wylie.   “I’m so sorry.”   Welch picks a tunnel with a large crack that runs its length, one he remembers from earlier. Or, he hopes he remembers. At first the only sound Welch hears is the rattle of his lantern, his boots and his own panicked breathing.   Then, steps that don’t belong to him. Raspy, even breaths. A satisfied murmur.   He looks over his shoulder; his shaking lantern light waves over something else. Black armor. The biting mask latched into pale flesh. The killer dashes across the gravel, its fork hung on his back and one arm slowly raising toward Welch. Something on the wrist, a knotted lump of shell, sprouts two spidery legs that click into place and resemble the arms of a bow. A shard of crystalized something ichor screeches through the air and shatters Welch’s lantern.   “No, no, no, no, no!” Welch runs his hands along the walls, too scared to stay still and too scared run. There’s nothing. His world his black now, and all choice is gone.   The steps that aren’t his grow closer. The breaths that don’t belong to him now hiss in his hear. Welch hears alien words that swim around him in a sinister cloud. Something sharp and cold runs across his face.   Another sound, a new one. Metal striking rock and something wet falling to the ground. Welch can feel the killer’s fork puncturing his gut and pin him to the cavern wall. If he screams, it doesn’t register to him at all. Everything is lost to a new kind of darkness now.   The killer stands over the dead man, watching blood and stone mingle on the floor; its eyes are made for this lightless void. The crunching of his hunting hound interrupts this silent daydream. The insect rejoins his master with Wylie strapped to its back. Wylie is bloodied almost beyond recognition, but breathing. The master had so much to learn about the miners despite the few words the men could share: How many miners there were, what weapons they might have and how unaccustomed their bodies are to pain.   The master left his city of Sha’Hidun to hunt for Dutroti. Their filter glands would reap a fortune from the Inoculators. And with more claws, the master could have a truly remarkable set of armor made. Yet, this was unexpected. Humans in the Bitter Depths. One brought in alive to the Dactyi would bring influence among those decrepit nobles and fame with the commoners, his people, the Drekh.   Dark Mother, Scroll Keeper or one of the other dead gods must haunt his fortunes for they were kind enough to give him not one but three. One beating heart for the tables of the lords, two more for his trophy rack.   With an armored hand, the master caresses the still-wet face dangling from his belt and then the empty spot beside it that waits to be filled. The silence is broken once again by a new sound: tortured meat and a skinning blade.


 

Chapter Ten


  At The Camp...   Flefneight awkwardly climbs to his feet. The combination of Thistleweed, a full belly and a few hours of sleep make his first few steps unsure. Fruit Thief and Arnott are in a contest for loudest snore, but somehow everyone else still manages to sleep through it.   Flefneight’s tired eyes look for a quiet place to relieve himself and have another smoke before returning to sleep. He spots an ideal patch of rocks near an arm of the little stream the men have been chasing and decides that will do just fine. He presses a few lumps of weed into the pipe before staring off toward the rocks but stops quickly to listen to the strange, distant screech in the air.   Flefneight’s pipe tumbles to the stone floor. Then, his body follows. Little is left of his head now, just a red hole and one wide eye.   The rest of the miners scramble and scream. They grab at small knives, lanterns and anything else while frantically scanning the dark.   The Dutroti are not nearly as lost. Their eyes fix on a distant shape, on sharp ears.   Pup hops to his feet and starts shoving the miners with his head, pushing them to flee. Arnott and Bekkrad are the first to arm themselves and find some measure of calm. Arnott tries to shield Bastel while he shoves his books and maps into his backpack.   “What’s happening? Is Flefneight dead? Oh gods… is he dead? Someone check!” Bastel screams.   “Yeah, I’d say he’s dead!” Kasper briefly shines his lantern toward the tattered, yawning wound where Flefneight’s face once was before clamoring to safety behind Scar Belly.   The Drekh hunter stalks slowly from boulder to boulder, watching darkness and death consume the daylighters. He imagines a world above filled with such weakness, such fear, and wonders how it is they even exist. Do they have gods who are happy preserving such fragile-hearted children? Could their world be empty of danger, one where the meek have thrived? Whatever the case, he comes to one simple conclusion: Only one man needs to be brought back to the Dactyi. Better the lords and hunters believe daylighters to be more of a challenge rather than mewling pups. He begins loading another quarrel into the insect-like Khulthacha on his wrist and starts to decide which of the surface dwellers the hand bow creature will extinguish next.   Before the decision can be made, the rock he’s re-arming behind trembles with force, and a broad, heavy paw swipes from above. Fruit Thief’s burst of angry speed and vicious swing managed to surprise both the hunter and the miners. Only a fraction of Fruit Thief’s attack actually connected with the glossy gauntlet of the hunter’s armor, but that alone sends a painful force through the Drekh’s arm, shoulder and neck. The Khulthacha on his arm is killed by Fruit Theif’s powerful paw, though; the insect weapon is blasted against its owner and across the cavern floor.   Kasper watches Fruit Thief loom over the rock, swinging her arms and hammering blows on whatever might be hidden behind it. Her small family could scoop up Pup and used their speed to leave Kasper and his team behind, but Fruit Thief chooses this instead, to risk everything and attack. Kasper is baffled by bizarre logic of it all.   “What do we do?” Bekkrad asks breathlessly. His head keeps swiveling back and forth looking for any other threats that might be slithering up on them.   “We help!” Arnott shouts. “Whatever it is killed Flefneight, and we’re next. Come on!” He then dashes toward Fruit Thief and the rock she’s laying siege to.   “Yeah, no thanks,” Kasper says. He then begins backing further and further away from the struggle. He turns to begin a full sprint but his lantern light casts against a shape a dozen or so yards ahead, something difficult for his mind to make sense of. A lump of something black and glossy, large as a draft horse, too. Claws. Spindly limbs. And there is Wylie, beaten, bound, and bleeding on top of the beetle-thing.   “What… what the…,” Kasper manages to mutter before he watches the shell on the thing’s back split as venous wings unfurl. It takes to the air for a brief, sanity-shattering few seconds. Clicking. Buzzing. Wreathed in Wylie’s agonized screams. It lands only a few feet from Kasper and turns its hacking arms on Scar Belly.   Bastel can’t take his eyes off Wylie. The man moans, reaching and begging for help. Yet, he cannot speak. Not clearly, not anymore. This close and under the glow of lantern, it becomes clear that Wylie has no face. Only desperate eyes and a mask of raw muscle and exposed bone.   “No, no, no, no!” Bastel repeats over and over as he runs wide around the beetle.   Scar Belly towers over his attacker yet suffers a barrage of attacks that slice and crush. He has little care for his own safety but instead works to keep Pup out of reach, and to Kasper’s surprise, Scar Belly is relentless in his effort to land a finishing blow on Wylie. Their kind seem to understand mercy, something Kasper has no interest in right now. He pushes past swirl of claws, grabbing Bastel’s supply bag from the ground and keeps running, following the little stream. The sound of the combat behind him grows softer, more distant. The last thing he hears before it all dies away into the distance is the crunch that finally silences Wylie’s screams.   Kasper runs until the echoes of the fight are no more and his lungs struggle for breath. Until the light of his team’s lanterns is swallowed by the dark. Until the fungal blooms fall into the background and he comes face to face with solid black stone walls where the tiny stream dips down.   He scrambles through the bag looking for candles or oil —anything at all that would help — but all he finds inside are Bastel’s maps and notebook. Kasper holds back a furious scream, desperate to remain unseen.   Kasper Is alone. Out of options. And watching his lantern oil burning away by the minute.   The dark is on its way.


 

Chapter Eleven


Meanwhile, The Battle Rages On...   The blades of the fork make a sickening noise as they’re wrenched from the back of Arnott’s skull. His body lays twitching on the cavern floor, smoke and flame dancing off his arm and flank from the lantern his body fell upon. The Drekh hunter has no time to revel in the beauty of that clean kill; he must keep moving.   The claws and pounding fists of the female Dutroti are a constant danger that show no sign of stopping. Each blow is slow, easily avoided, but it would only take one solid strike to end his hunt forever. The daylighters, however, are a different matter. The big one he just killed had been a constant nuisance, slowing him down and making him an easier target for the Dutroti. He had to die and quickly; even if it meant ruining any chance of preserving the human’s face for his collection.   In the distance, the hunter takes an account of how his Eket beetle is fairing. It and the male Dutroti are trading stone-shattering attacks against each other. With cracked carapace and gnashed-open flesh, both look to persist on adrenaline alone. The hunter can only hope that his creature’s will to fight can last just a moment longer than the male Dutroti’s. The idea of having to avoid four more limbs is not a comforting one.   The hunter spins his fork about and angles it to receive the charging female that’s once again trying to trample him into the gravel. This time he’s ready, though. He focuses entirely on the cluster of arteries that pump just beneath the surface of Fruit Thief’s throat, where the collar and neck plates meet. A small target, but he’s harpooned smaller before.   “No more!” A shout from the hunter’s side catches him by surprise, followed by a sharp pain in his wrist. This man is different, it seems to be able see well enough in the dark, something he didn’t expect a daylighter to be capable of. The stout little thing brings his shovel up again and prepares to strike the hunter’s arm a second time, but his target dances to the side and flourishes his fork in a hypnotic flurry. So dazzling is the display that Bekkrad doesn’t immediately notice the tip of the hunter’s weapon open a gash across his neck and shoulder. It is only when Bekkrad feels warmth spilling over his chest that he realizes he’s been slashed. Bekkrad stumbles and falls to the stone, gripping the wound tightly.   The Drekh prepares to thrust his blades into the troublesome daylighter, but the vibrations in the ground tell him there is no time for this kill. No time to do anything but brace. He looks toward Fruit Thief with just enough time to scream a hateful curse at her before they collide.   Bekkrad leans back, his head swimming and vision growing blurry. He can still manage to see Scar Belly, who flips the beetle-thing over and cracks open its soft undershell with a final hammer strike of his claws. The beetle collapses on the stone beside Scar Belly, breathing heavy and slow. Bastel’s body is there as well, crushed against the floor by one beetle’s claws.   He doesn’t see Kasper though, and that brings a smile to his now pale lips.


 

Chapter Twelve


  Somewhere...   Kasper remembers scrambling along for maybe hours. There’s no telling. Everything that happened back at their camp is a distant horror compared to the one that unfolded before his eyes just now. The fuel gauge on his lantern is dwindling.   Soon the lantern light flickers, dying in the dark for a few painfully long moments and then… nothing. The light is replaced by pure terror.   Kasper scrambles. He begs. He weeps. And eventually, he fell through some fissure or sharp decline. Whatever it was, the fall was brief, and the impact took away all the fear.   Kasper drifted in and out. He felt sharp pains here and there. A floating feeling from time to time. Familiar noises, too.   While he drifts at the edge of consciousness, Kasper dreams. He sees the beetle-thing and its claws. Wylie’s face and his panicked eyes. The mole creatures. The hunter and his terrible taloned fingers reaching for him. Kasper dreams of light, too. The sky. The idea of there being a tomorrow.   His eyes shoot open, and they can see. There’s light, not much but enough. He can see a cavern tunnel that ends in clear sky and daylight no more than a dozen yards away. There’s pain in his leg but not enough to stop him from quickly, agonizingly, readying himself. Then, he looks behind himself to see where he came from and how he got here.   Fruit Thief lies on the ground, her massive belly rising and sinking very slowly. One sparkling eye looks at Kasper, locked on him. Her body is a patchwork of cuts and stabs; blood seeps from a particularly large gash near her neck. Pup and Scar Belly are nowhere to be seen, and Kasper is not sure what that might mean.   Beside her is Bekkrad. He’s still, pale and long since dead. And then there’s the hunter. He is slumped against the wall near Fruit Thief, his insectile breastplate crushed and his own brackish blood spattered everywhere. Whatever sits beneath the strange mask is a mystery Kasper has no care to solve.   Fruit Thief honks at him the same way she did back at the standing stone. Ages ago it feels like. Her heavy paw carves a line in the stone, struggling as she does. Then, with a final effort she carves a line from beneath the mark to the top.   To the surface.   In that moment, Kasper weeps. Fruit Thief made a promise and she followed through. She brought them out, protected them against the hunter, died to protect them from him.   He doesn’t weep out of gratitude, but shame. There’s no way she could have known that he didn’t deserve it. That he wasn’t worth her life. There wasn’t anything about his life that should have been paid for with blood and sacrifice.   Kasper looks at the light then back at her. He takes more fruit from Bekkrad’s pouches and sits beside her, feeding her, holding her.   Daylight fades to night, and eventually he’s alone again.


   
Dutroti parents.PNG
Dutroti Mother and Pup by Steve Bellshaw


Cover image: Dutroti Cover by Steve Bellshaw

Comments

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21 Sep, 2019 05:42

The juxtaposition of the cuteness of the Dutroti and the creepiness of the Drekh and its beetles is stark! The story certainly advertises the danger of Tairos and the horrors which lurk within it, though the story itself seems to struggle a bit with the word limitation of the challenge—that's not a bad thing, but it's clear the story wants to guide us off into the greater tapestry of Tairos!   I rather enjoyed "Their junk has two settings. On and broken." and some of the other banter between characters, and the gruesome descriptions (especially of poor Jaxon's death were on point!   Good luck in the judging!

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