Anastri doubled over as she felt sharp pain rip through her leg. A small, black spear had lodged in her calf, sending her to the ground. Above her head she felt rather than heard Ash fling one of his enormous javelins across the room, prompting a scream that was cut short as Warren vaulted over the half-wall between them and their attackers, dagger flashing. A blinding moment of agony, and then there was a cool sensation around her leg and Ria was kneeling over her, holding the spear and pressing a compress to her leg.
"Hold on Anastri," she muttered. "It's not too bad." Her eyes flicked up to where two goblins had jumped over the wall and were engaging Ash and Warren, and her hand twitched toward her blade.
Anastri pulled herself up a little. "It's good. I'm good. Thanks, Ria. You should get to the battle." Ria needed nothing more before she was gone, bringing her quarterstaff down with a crack on a goblin's head.
Scooting a bit to the right to get a clear view, Anastri focused her sights on the goblin engaged in combat with Ash. It had a nasty wound on its head, but had still managed to score a hit across Ash's side. She moved forward, making sure to keep her back to the wall of the cavern until she was standing right behind him.
"Anastri, what-" Ash started to say as he caught sight of her, but she didn't answer. The goblin began to turn, and she lunged forward, wrapping her hands around his throat as she focused all her energy into pulling his life force out of his body. The pain in her leg disappeared as his eyes crossed and he collapsed, unconscious. She stepped back from his body, stumbling a little as she put pressure on the wounded limb, but otherwise unharmed. Behind her there was a twang as Salorien finished her improvised ballad describing the many unsavory things about the goblin cowering before her, and drove the point home by crushing his windpipe with her slightly-heeled boot.
Just like the last time, there was silence as they came out of the skirmish. As she unwrapped the poultice hastily applied by Ria, Anastri watched as the others came to terms with their conditions. The only others hurt were Ash and Solus. Ash had a deep cut across his side, but had already begun wrapping it to staunch the bleeding. Solus' wounds were harder to figure out - she was bruised and battered, but wasn't cut anywhere. Anastri limped over to where she was cradling her head.
"Solus?" The sorcerer whipped around, then winced at the pain in her head.
"What's going on with your head? You look banged up."
"I just..." she gestured at the half wall. "I tripped on that on my way to the goblins. Don't worry about it." Without waiting for an answer, she went to pick up the knife lodged in a goblin's shoulder, ending the conversation. Anastri frowned, and looked to the side to see Ria staring after Solus as well. She glanced up to meet Anastri's gaze.
"I caught that too," she mentioned in an undertone. "I don't think Solus could trip over something if she tried to. Besides, I was paying attention. Those injuries aren't from this fight." Giving a small half smile, she shouldered her quiver and moved past Anastri, leaving the half-elf suddenly feeling a lot less victorious.
Staying alert, Warren only paused to hit his head on a low-hanging stalagmite as they made their way down the sloping passageway they had found at the bottom of a narrow, twisting staircase in the floor of the cavern. He felt more relaxed, more confident than he had been for a long time. With a dagger, a cloak, and the dark shadows of the underground (not quite the Under-dark, but he'd take it), the future seemed certain. At least, the future in which he stabbed someone.
Behind him, the rest of the party scraped and jostled their way down the stairs. Anastri, he knew, could see in the dark, but he wasn't sure about the rest of them. Flicking a glowworm off of the wall and crushing it in his hand, he drew the motes of dust in the air together into a set of glowing orbs that bobbed a meter or two above the ground behind him. They lit up the tunnel with light which - due to the mobile nature of the orbs - flickered wildly as shadows warped and distended on the walls. Ash winced.
"You couldn't have a stationary light spell?" he groaned, already reaching into his pack for a torch.
"Of course not," Warren hissed under his breath. "They're dynamic. At a moments notice they can be moved, banished, or brought together into the form of a person who can do a jig to distract the enemies while we make our getaway. Bobbing is an essential part of their design."
Ash didn't comment on this but lit his torch, which at least served to diminish the shadows. At the same time, the hallway opened up onto a small, circular room. It was empty of creatures, but Warren could see two doors leading off in different directions. As he ventured further into the room, he beckoned his companions forward.
"You guys, looks like there's a room here. I see two doors, but there could be-" he was cut off suddenly as Ash strode forward and swung the door closest to him open. "-traps," he finished, and winced. The huge dragonborn stood silhouetted by the light of his torch in the doorway, peering into the dark corridor beyond. For a moment he didn't move, and then...
"Nope, nothing," he said, and strode forward without waiting for the rest of the group. Anastri hurried up behind Warren, who was at this point gaping in outrage at the injustice of it all. She glanced at him like what can you do? and stepped past him to join Ash, who was banging open doors down the length of the hallway.
While Warren was still frozen Solus came up to the hallway entrance, sighed heavily, and rolled her eyes before following the first two. This immediately broke Warren out of his paralysis and he straightened his back as he walked through the doorway, determined to do whatever the opposite of what Solus did was. If Solus was annoyed at Ash's actions, he reasoned, then he was positively delighted that Ash had announced their presence in such an obnoxious way! There was no way he would give her the satisfaction of thinking he agreed with her.
"Looks like there's a room up here not filled with old dead stuff," Ash called as he moved from the corridor to the room beyond. "Sort of like a porch or something, but for a big fancy stone building."
"An antechamber," Anastri responded without looking up, picking her way ahead of Warren down the corridor. And indeed, as Warren neared the entrance it did begin to look like an antechamber. The ceiling was rather tall, and crushed and broken glass on the floor suggested that it had once had windows looking out on the sky. Since then the roof had buckled slightly, and debris littered the floor. A small half-wall separated part of the room from the rest, and as he crept closer Warren could swear he saw something dark through a crack between two crumbling stone bricks.
To the right was a body, and Salorien drew in a breath of surprise as she approached it. "Well, I'll say. Old Dave. Never thought I'd see you again."
Warren saw Anastri wheel around in surprise. "'Old Dave'? You've met this dead goblin?" For indeed, the body was that of a goblin, stuck to the wall with a spear through its chest.
Salorien regarded the corpse thoughtfully. "Yup. He was the one who nearly cut my viol strap in that skirmish I mentioned to you earlier." Her eyes darkened perceptibly. "Looks like he got what was coming to him." Almost as an afterthought she tugged at the spear and it came away from the wall with a grinding sound. Without its point holding him up, the goblin started to topple over and Warren instinctively stepped back as a word carved into the stone behind him revealed itself. It was in a script he didn't recognize, but Ash stepped forward and ran his clawed hand over the letters.
"Ashardalon. It says Ashardalon," he muttered to himself. Then, to everyone: "I think we might be in more trouble than we thought."
It was at that moment that the dark patch behind the wall moved and with a blur a spear came sailing out of the darkness and hit Anastri in the leg, toppling her to the ground.
And so our heroes - if that is what they are - descend into the crumbling capital of a fallen city. A set of spiral stone stairs lead into the maze of rooms and hallways and collapsed roofs that make up the citadel.
I wonder, now, if any of them were weaving the same picture you are. Likely not. It's always hard to see the threads when you are the threads, entangling one another in webs of omittance and distrust. It takes an impartial eye to see the picture being created.
And are you impartial? Or do you pick out some colors more readily than others, peering through the stained glass of your own personality? Maybe not.
But I wouldn't count on it.
Anastri collapsed, shaking. Ash fell to his knees beside her and checked her pulse.
"Anastri?" Solus asked, dropping to the ground beside Ash. "You okay?"
Ash waved her away and she felt a spike of rage. "Give her some space. She's fine."
With a poorly concealed grimace, Salorien turned away. If the team members were already collapsing at the sight of blood, this was going to be a long journey. She stalked across the cavernous space, her annoyance only growing when she stumbled over the spine of a rat. Stupid darkness. She was going to do something about that.
"Warren?" she called. "I'll be just a moment. Going to check the rest of the area for anything interesting like an entrance."
He glanced up at her from where he was describing what happened to Ria. "No problem, we'll regroup here in... ten minutes?"
Salorien smiled. "Perfect." She set off with renewed purpose, searching the rough walls until she found a suitably dark, inconspicuous nook. Crouching, she pulled the wriggling, squirming shape she'd picked up earlier from her pouch and set it on the ground, keeping a tight hold around its neck. She'd have to act fast - across the cavern Anastri was already getting to her feet.
"I need to be able to see. I'll be no use down here without darkvision," she muttered. "This rat pup is my sacrifice. With its blood, I invoke you and stuff." She risked another quick glance up, and saw the others walking away. She would have to hurry. Raising her dagger she brought it down on the pup's neck, muffling its squeals with her hand. Its blood spurted out, narrowly avoiding her skirt as it sprayed onto the ground. There was a faint rumble, and she felt a presence stir in the musty air.
You have invoked me.
Solus caught her breath. "Yes. I need darkvision. Temporary, permanent, whatever. I can't have any disadvantages if I'm going to pull this off, and there are too many people who can see in this party for my liking."
You know what it will require.
"Yes." Her knuckles were white from how hard she was gripping the dagger. The presence faded, disappearing into the stone. She braced for impact, but it still took her by surprise when a vicious wind kicked up, slamming her into the side of the cave. Stars burst behind her closed eyelids and she muffled a cry of pain before dropping to the rocky floor. The wind died away, and this time she knew it was really gone. She lay there for a moment, breathing heavily, before scrambling to her feet with the support of the wall. Her shoulder hurt - maybe strained. Her head hurt - she didn't like to think about what could've happened to it. Her right eye was already beginning to swell up, but she grinned with satisfaction when she realized that she could make out the piles of rubbish and bones scattered around the cavern. The sacrifice had worked.
Holding her shoulder gingerly, she started back to rejoin the group.
It was a strangely normal window. The green paint looked - while not fresh - likely to last for quite some time. The glass wasn’t the old sort that warped and shifted everything outside it, nor was it cracked or grimy. The latch was undone but still smooth, so that when Sophie carefully moved it back and forth all it did was utter one small whistling squeak of protest before quieting down. There was no indication whatsoever that this window was special in any way.
This, of course, was the exact reason Sophie had approached it. After all, what nine-year-old wouldn’t notice such an ordinary window in such an un-ordinary house? Built long before anyone had given a thought to mechanically openable windows or foundations, the building sagged in a melancholy, defeated fashion. Its walls were warped and its floor groaned even when there wasn’t anyone stepping on it. When it rained, the damp mist would make its way through the door that didn’t fit in its frame and settle over the spiderwebs set up in the corners of the rooms.
It was the spiderwebs that had caught Sophie’s eye. She had been walking to her own house, which was rather out of the way and required two bus trips and a ten minute stroll. She had also been humming, but when she recalled the moment years later she couldn’t for the life of her remember the tune.
“It was… sort of happy,” she reflected. “But also rather mysterious. Lots of short notes, and so forth. I remember because when I looked through that window, all the little notes got piled up in my head and came spilling out of my mouth at once.”
The window was so ordinary that Sophie had never given any thought to it until that moment. But that day, something caught her eye. A glint, a shimmer, some flash from inside that dark, lonely house that made her stop dead.
Approaching the front of the house, she reasoned with herself. It was a fluke. Something metal inside. The glare from the sun. And yet she continued walking forward, her bag forgotten at the edge of the road. Sometimes she would lose sight of the jewel-like gleam and her heart would stop, afraid that it had gone forever. But it always appeared again, not so much comforting or encouraging but terrifying, exciting. It felt like jumping straight into the ice cold mountain creek by the old schoolhouse - exhilarating. Her muscles were tensed, her heart in her throat and her eyes ready to squeeze shut at any moment and at the same time remaining wide, wide open.
Closer to the window she could discern more details of the strange light. It looked like a string of tiny pearls but more, like it was diamonds and candle flame and mirrors and rainbows all at once. It was strung, hanging, swaying slightly. Sophie stepped carefully over the dry grass outside the house and ever so carefully moved even nearer. It was a spiderweb. But like no spiderweb she had ever seen. It boughed down in a swooping arc, its many feet grasping the wood of the ceiling with an iron grip. And droplets of water covered it from head to toe, sliding along its arms and running down until they drip, drip, dripped onto the floor from the center.
Suddenly Sophie felt restless. She had to get in that house. She had to see the web up close. Crossing the few feet of space in between her and the door, she slipped through the sizable gap left by the warped frame and entered the dark, musty hall.
It was gloomy, and immediately a cacophony of screeches and creaks found its way out of the fragile floorboards. Sophie tread carefully, making her way towards the spiderweb. But when she arrived, when she tilted her head to stare at the tangle of threads - it had lost its glory. It lay crouched in the corner of the room, dripping with water but no longer with those jewels of beauty she had so clearly seen before.
This was, of course, no real hardship; but as nine-year-olds often do Sophie felt terribly as if she had lost something precious and would never get it back. She backed out of the room with her eyes fixed on the web, but her desperate hope to see it once again flare into life turned into bitter disappointment and - feeling slightly foolish - she picked up her bag and walked quickly home.
Later that evening the scene faded, plastered over with all the new and more exciting memories she had picked up on her way back home. Several days later, she had all but forgotten it and if she had been reminded of the incident she would have scrunched up her forehead like someone remembering an experience from many years ago. Such is the gift - and curse - of children.
It was in fact over a week later that she gave any thought to the old house at all, and it came on rather suddenly, during the organ’s plodding march. It was Sunday morning, she was tugging slightly on the frilly ends of her dress, and the plain green window popped into her head as if it had never left. Possibly it was the shards of green set into the tall stained-glass windows that brought it to mind. Possibly it was the echoing, mysterious tune bouncing off the cathedral-like walls. More likely however, it was the myriad tiny, neuron-sparking trains whose electric paths through children’s brains are so devastatingly ineffable.
That night, as soon as she was sure of the silence of the house, Sophie leapt out of bed and out into the woods. It was cold. Cold and dark. Dark and eerie. But Sophie kept going, the lantern she had grabbed at the last minute from the dining room table swinging from her hand.
Five minutes later Sophie stood outside of the house, peering at the window with trepidation. In the dark it didn’t seem ordinary at all. It loomed, the dark wood around it fading until it floated in the air, beckoning her closer with wind-blown tree branches. She inched forward, her heart nearly beating out of her chest. Raising her lantern high, she peered into the depths of the window, searching desperately for the magic that had so entranced her before.
The lantern’s light fell over the window frame, bringing it into sharp relief. Some of it glanced off of the glass surface of the window, but the rest fell in a golden pool inside the building. It illuminated the rotted wooden walls. It shone onto the shadowy beams holding up the roof. And it caught inside the glitter in the corner of the room.
Sophie pressed forward. It was as if the lantern light were being sucked into the spiderweb. Instead of the glistening, glinting, diamond-esque droplets she had seen before, these glowed golden in the flickering firelight. Pressing her nose against the window, her eyes widened as she stared. Each droplet looked like a flame, golden-red swirls spinning through it as it rolled down the web to drip, drip, drip on the floor.
As she leaned forward, the window seemed to tilt away from her and she gasped as she stumbled, pulled by gravity and curiosity toward the strange, fiery beauty of the spiderweb.
She fell through the window with a surprised squeak, the lantern flickering wildly in panic from the ground beside her. Turning her shocked gaze to it, Sophie imagined that the flame was a golden fairy, beating her fists wildly against the walls to be let out. Something deep inside Sophie’s chest had sprung open - had been liable to ever since she saw the web for the first time and that scent of magic had reached her nose. She felt awake for the first time in her life, tingling all over with electric excitement. When she put her hand in the dirt on the floor the nerve endings in her fingers exploded with sensation and her knuckles spasmed, grabbing at the floor instinctively. It was as if all her life she had been wrapped in gauze and had never realized what it felt like to touch something.
Sophie stood up cautiously, eyes fixed on the web that still glowed in the lantern light. Her heartbeat felt unnaturally loud - she was suddenly conscious of her breathing and as a direct consequence was finding it more difficult to perform. Her mind skittered over the fact that her eyes were seeing fire, her nose was smelling magic, her ears were hearing songs, her tongue was tasting ashes, and her fingers gripped tightly over the lantern handle were feeling cool metal.
Stepping closer, she stared with narrow eyes at the rounded, glistening droplets that covered the web. She reached out a finger, and they drip, drip, dripped onto it before continuing their interrupted journey to the floor.
“What are you?” she whispered, but her voice echoed around the enclosed space like a foghorn. She imagined she could see her breath as it left her throat, jetting out like a gust of wind that could set a sea to storm, billowing out in a screaming mass that grasped the jeweled web and shook it terrier-like in its hands. The web trembled, then shivered, then shooke so violently that the steady drip, drip became a more rhythmic patter patter patter. Drops of molten fire fell to the floor in a mass exodus, where they collected in dark puddles which Sophie was scared would catch fire, they were so oily and black. She jerked back, but the damage was done and the thin strands of the web sat near invisible, devoid of their pearlescent adornments.
Sophie gasped in a quick intake of breath, the emotion of which she had trouble recalling later.
“I remember the feeling of emptiness,” she said, nestled deep in her armchair with her hands clasped on her lap. “And it was so powerful that I had to take a breath, as if I were trying to fill a part of myself where the things that were supposed to be there had gone missing.”
I was seated in the opposite chair, with my pen in hand. “But the experience didn’t leave you with any negative emotions?”
She laughed. “Not at all. In fact, I rather think that when I breathed in, I gained much more than I had originally lost.”
Sophie breathed in. She breathed air, yes, but also magic. And fire. And the tang of metal and the scrape of old wooden boards and the flaky green paint from the windowsill. And when she turned, lantern in hand, and walked out of that dusty room, she carried something different in her heart.
When I asked her about it many years later, she responded with “magic.” Then she elaborated. “I felt different. I felt as if my eyes had been opened to the things around me - as if when I walked back into the world I was aware of things that others were not. I noticed when people breathed, when they blinked. I never once forgot how lucky I was to be a part of such a living, breathing, blinking world.”
I thanked her, and took my leave. My goal then was to write an article about her upcoming novel, not quite finished at that point. But we accumulate many things throughout our lives, and not all of them are magic. Sophie died of lead poisoning later that year, and never lived to see the subsequent release of her book.
This - slightly fanciful, I must admit - article is dedicated to the children who seek knowledge in unlikely places, and find hidden things in that particular way that children can. May they never learn to ignore what is mundane and strange and wonderful about this world.
Anastri got slowly to her feet, her heart pounding. In front of her lay the rat, a pile of fur stuck through with a dagger of ice. With nausea growing in her stomach she remembered her lessons at the library. An ice knife appears and impales the opponent. Almost immediately after, the piece of ice explodes and hits any nearby individuals. She glanced over at the other rat, flank bristling with ice shards, and nearly threw up. Only the insistent, poking discomfort of the acorn kept her anchored. With a wince, she remembered the first time she'd seen it.
Alone. Wet. Hungry. Anastri stumbled through the woods, past trees whose branches clawed at her pleadingly. Come back. Come back.
Don't you think I would if I could? she wondered bitterly. I'm never going back.
The silence of the forest was oppressive, and even the omnipresent music only served to remind her of what she'd lost. This far out into the forest (although how far Anastri couldn't say), the plants looked twisted and strange. Dangerous, feral versions of the benign gardens she'd grown up with. Giving them a wide berth, she ignored her rumbling stomach. It wasn't worth it.
But as the hours dragged on, and the bright, clear day drew to a mild close, she began to reconsider. She'd walked for miles, her legs were shaking, and she still wasn't out of the elves' influence. Barely audible silvery music still followed her wherever she went, and the perfect warm summer evening revealed hundreds of stars in the suspiciously clear sky. The biggest giveaway was that she still wasn't cold - her clothes had not yet dried fully from when she took a swim that morning, and despite the damp her jacket was hanging uselessly around her waist.
I will not die here. I forbid it. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders and stared into the darkness, which as far as darkness goes was not the best. The large moon and myriad stars flooded the scene in light and made several of the nearest trees stand out in sharp relief. Everything about this forest was fake, from the temperature to the sky to the dark. Anastri felt a sudden stab of fury. How dare they just cast her aside like that. No one had opposed them. No one intervened. Her own mother stood by and watched while her own daughter was checked off the list of disappointing chores the council had to attend to.
With vicious anger she kicked a rock, sending it clattering against a tree. There was a sudden rustling sound, and something flickered between the branches before stopping in a low-hanging limb of the next tree. A squirrel. If she squinted Anastri could make it out, stock still. In its hands it gripped a large acorn.
She stared, shocked, until she became aware that her empty stomach was leading her forward in a crouching position, with her knife already in her hand. In surprise she dropped her knife. Her mother's words came back to her, their tone soothing. Every living being has its own life. It is never, ever okay to take one. You do not have the right. Then Anastri remembered her words three days ago, watching her daughter get dragged away without making a move to help. This is best for everyone.
The squirrel still sat there, silhouetted in the fake moonlight. It seemed to be looking right at her, clutching the acorn tight to its chest. The fake acorn. This was a fake forest, kept by the elves so that they could pretend to go for thrilling adventures. The trees were always old and majestic. The acorns always large. The moon always shone and the birds were always singing. There was no doubt in Anastri's mind now that the plants would be safe to eat, but the rage at her exile and frustration at seeing her home for what it really was focused itself on the squirrel.
She sprang at it, hitting the branch and knocking it off. It burst into action, scampering back around her feet and up the trunk of the tree. A bundle of grass and leaves threatens safety, and so she stabbed out wildly at it, feeling her dagger connect with a sickening solidity.
The squirrel fell out of the tree again, this time without moving. Anastri hesitated, blood still pumping loudly through her head. The body lay there on the ground like a wet rag. She took a shaky breath and stumbled toward it, dropping her knife. Holding the body with trembling hands, she tried to unfreeze her brain. It was the squirrel or me. I was betrayed by my family first. Nothing seems to make it better. On autopilot, she gathered wood and put together a tiny fire. No fire ever got out of control in elf country. No need to worry about nearby twigs. All fake.
After half an hour, the squirrel seemed done, although Anastri was hardly an expert at the time. The outside was charred, but the inside wasn't under-cooked.
Every bite felt like a betrayal of her family, though she wolfed it down so fast she couldn't have later described the taste. When it was gone she wrapped her arms around her knees and stared into the fire, willing it to obscure her vision with light and smoke. When she looked away again, the elven woods had just the same untouchable beauty as before.
In the morning she was woken by small sounds coming from a nearby tree. She rolled over on the grass (soft, green, and alive despite the summer heat) and walked toward it. With a start, she realized that it was coming from the bundle of grass and leaves she had noticed the previous night when -
She hurried over, and gasped. Three baby squirrels wriggled and squeaked in the bottom of the nest. Looking up, she saw another adult squirrel watching her. When she made eye contact, it shook its tail and bounded away. She had the horrible feeling it would not be coming back. She searched the ground desperately until she found the acorn the squirrel had been carrying and offered it to the pups. They ignore it, climbing over each other and around the nest aimlessly. Too young. Anastri watched them, something twisting in her heart. Carefully she extracted the acorn and slipped it into her pocket - she would find a way to keep it on her permanently later. Never again would she take another innocent life. Not when the consequences could be more deaths.
Leaving the nest, Anastri hurried on. She had been traveling for half an hour or so when she shivered. Shivered. She was out of the forest. Hastily pulling on her coat she set off with renewed vigor. Out of the forest, out of the 'protection' of the elven community. You are not a full elf. Unfit to live amongst us. Leave now or be destroyed. Well, she had left. She had left the woods, seen new lands, and conquered the glamour that confuse non-elf travelers in the forest. Grimly she gripped her knife harder. I'll show them.
Or die trying.
Ash lowered himself down the rope, hand over hand. The shaft of light from the crevasse above cast a weak, sickly light over the ground. Now that he was so close Ash could make out the debris and bones that Warren had mentioned mingled and scattered across the uneven floor.
Warren had already made it down the rope and stood stock still by the bottom, silhouetted by the sunlight. Ash supposed he was searching the area for danger. He gets to search for danger and I get to be blind. He hadn't realized how much this mission was going to rely on little things like light.
"Anything?" he whispered, clambering down the last few knots.
Spinning around, Warren glared at him fiercely. At least, Ash assumed he did. His face was entirely in shadow. "You idiot!" Warren hissed.
"What?" retorted Ash. "What's wrong?"
Warren glanced around at a large pile of debris in the corner nervously. "The things that live down here don't go for sight. They go for-"
Ash slipped and tumbled the last five feet to the ground.
"-sound," Warren finished, and drew his knife. "Get ready."
This time, Ash didn't say 'for what'. He unsheathed his ax - correction, his two axes - and lit a torch for good measure, jamming it into a pile of debris so he had his hands free. As soon as he did so he realized that the torch had been shoved through the eye socket of a giant rodent skull, but he didn't have time to fix it. Rustling noises started coming from the heap Warren had been staring at earlier, and it was starting to look horribly like a den.
"Dire rats?" he guessed, and was rewarded with a terse nod from Warren. The torch light flickered over the ground and rubble, casting long shadows from every chunk of rock or bone. The shaking of the den-like structure caused even more confusion, enough so that Ash didn't notice Anastri had appeared until she was right beside him.
"What's going on?" she whisper-yelled. "I leave you two alone for one minute-"
"No time to explain!" he real-yelled back. "Dire rats! Warren's fault. We don't know how many there are."
Warren looked indignantly over his shoulder and started to respond, but fell silent. His expression was a mixture of exasperation and terror, and he was looking right behind Ash and Anastri.
Dread settled in the pit of Ash's stomach as he turned around. Surely they couldn't be that smart.
They were. Another dire rat stood behind him, its beady eyes upon him. Ash had often considered rats cute, and sometimes tasty if he needed a snack. Now though, he wasn't so sure. This creature was almost fifty pounds, its blown-up features revealing all the little imperfections in its visage. Bent and chipped teeth snapped in its jaws, and little flecks of foam ringed its mouth. Its eyes were small, red, and very, very mad. Its claws reminded Ash of a bird's talons, bare and mangled, with several toes missing.
The rat hissed, as if aware of Ash's description, and pounced. At the same time a cry from behind him told Ash his friends were occupied with their own battle. Until one of their remaining group members arrived, he was on his own.
He tried to concentrate on the rodent and raised his axes, but the noise of fighting behind him served as enough of a distraction for the rat to make the first move. It leaped at his chest, raking its claws across his face before pushing off with its back legs and scampering away.
Roaring, he lashed out with his right-hand ax, and scored a line down the rat's flank. At the same time he brought his left-hand ax down in a sweeping arc, slicing off most of the tail. Behind him Anastri was whispering something. A glimmering blue light began flickering off the surroundings, telling him that she was casting a spell at her opponent. With a blinding flash, she released it. In spite of himself, Ash turned his head to look and saw the body of a rat, impaled by numerous shards of ice. The other rat in that direction also looked injured, and several shards of ice were sticking out of its side.
Something knocked him over and turning, he came face to face with his rat. It hissed and bared its fangs, breath hot against his face. He brought his legs up and pushed the rat off, sending it flying nearly twenty feet across the cavern. It landed with a crunch and lay still, bleeding from numerous gashes caused by his clawed feet. Breathing hard, Ash scrambled to his feet and turned to help the others with their rats, but the fight was over. The rat Anastri had hit with her ice spell was clearly dead, and the other had attempted to limp away before Salorien jumped down from the rope and slit its throat.
The heavy breathing of the group was loud in the silence. Salorien and Warren looked none the worse for wear, but Ash worried about Anastri. They had traveled together for some time before meeting up with the others and he knew that she didn't like killing things. Her face was set and she was holding the acorn on her bracelet so tightly Ash was worried it might crack.
He stepped toward her, but before he could say anything there was a thump from behind them. They all spun around, and came face to face with Ria landing on the floor by the rope.
"Hello," she said, breathing slightly harder than usual. "What happened?"
The underground is a curious place. In stories, in fictitious tales, darkness is often a place to hide. To feel the fear running up your back and prickling along the nape of your neck.
I would be lying if I were to say the darkness facing our adventurers didn't evoke this. It did. But just because it did doesn't mean it had to. The dark caves and dripping corners of the world are not only places of sanctuary, but of peace. Respite.
Don't judge the darkness for what you see between the pages of this book. It has more to offer than it lets on.
Solus stepped out of the trees where she had been watching the exchange. "Ria is right. She would have killed you long ago if she'd wanted to."
Ria smiled, but Solus could see her eyes flick uncertainly toward her. She was someone to watch.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Ria answered, the sudden worry in her eyes gone. "I can tell we're going to be good friends." She unslung the small leather satchel on her arm and pulled out a long length of rope. "Unfortunately, I ask all my friends to donate rope to the communal getting-into-the-deep-dangerous-pit pool. Are you interested?"
Solus rolled her eyes but tossed down her coil as did Ash. Ria went to work and after maybe ten minutes of tying and tugging had a knotted length of rope that - when she tossed one end over the edge - fell to the bottom of the cavern.
From the corner of her eye Solus could see Warren rubbing his hands together, plainly eager to get moving.
"Warren can go first," she offered. "He has the best underground instincts."
Salorien nodded. "I didn't get much farther than this the first time I came here - bad timing. A goblin raiding party was heading back to the citadel and ran into me. I managed to - subdue them - and escape, but it was close.
Skeptically, Anastri raised an eyebrow. "How exactly did you subdue them?"
"It doesn't matter," Salorien muttered, but Solus saw his hand stray to his viol.
Warren grinned. "Did it have anything to do with your rendition of a song?"
There was a long silence. Then: "maybe".
Warren burst out laughing. "The talent of driving people away with your music is powerful indeed," he cackled. "Glad to have you with us." Not bothering to wait for a response, he jumped onto the rope and began dropping himself down, using the many knots as handholds and footholds.
He quickly moved out of sight, and Solus cursed her lack of dark-vision. Something to see to if they were going to be spending some time down here. All she could focus on was the rope, bobbing and swaying.
Barely three minutes had passed before the rope went still. Warren called up "all clear!" and gave the rope a tug for good measure.
Solus looked at the others. "Who wants to be next? Warren didn't die, so I suppose its safe enough."
Medrash grunted. "I'll go. If it holds me we know it'll hold any of us." He grabbed the rope and eased himself over the edge of the hole, cursing as he struggled to fit his clawed feet onto the knots. He made it down in five minutes without a problem, followed by Anastri who hung onto the rope as tightly as possible, her knuckles white. Solus and Salorien looked at each other, and Solus mockingly gestured toward the rope.
"Salorien, would you do the honors?" Salorien took it in stride, strutting over to the rope.
"Of course, my dear." He seemed more light and dramatic than usual, walking with a different pace, and Solus wondered with a start whether he was now a she. Something to figure out once they were both down on the cave floor.
Finally, only Ria and Solus were left. Neither of them made a move to go down the rope. Solus was sure Ria knew something was up, and she suspected that she knew what.
"Ria. Where are you from?"
"Is that important?"
Ria made a show of packing her satchel, snapping it closed and slinging it across her back. "You wouldn't have heard of it. A little village several weeks away from here. The jungle."
Solus offered the rope to Ria, who took it without comment. "Interesting that you should have traveled all the way over here. From what I know, jungle villages tend to stick to themselves."
"Yeah well," Ria grunted, stepping down onto the rope. "Maybe I wanted to see the sights." She disappeared, dropping hand over hand into the pit. Solus watched with narrow eyes.
"No," she muttered. "I don't think that's it." After a minute or two, she followed her group into the darkness.
Warren shivered as he looked down the rift. It wasn’t the darkness - as a drow he rarely had trouble with the dark. No, it was what he could see that was scaring him. Across the wide, empty space below were piles of rubble and dirt intermixed with large quantities of bones. Most were old and cracked, but more than he felt comfortable with were clean and new looking.
“What are those bones from?” Anastri was looking at the debris too, her forehead knit together. “Goblins usually aren’t that vicious towards their own species.”
“Dire rats,” Warren responded. “They infest the lower levels of the Under-dark. Not always dangerous, but in groups they can pose a threat to someone on their own. I doubt we need to worry about them very much though - a group should be good against up to eight or so and the clans are never that big.”
“Ok.” From his seat on the fallen pillar Salorien plucked a note on his viol. “So we should be fine.”
From above them a voice whispered, “Unless there’s a brood mother.”
Warren leapt without thinking, unsheathing his knives and glancing at the tree above him as he fell into a crouch, ready to stab whatever was up there. Curiously, there was nothing.
Hesitantly, Ash lowered his sword and looked at Anastri. “Is it...?”
Anastri lowered her hands and called, “Ria? Ria... Brackle? Is that you?”
Laughing, a younger wood elf slipped out of the tree where a moment before there had been nothing. “Close enough. Although it’s actually Briquel.” She pronounced her name in a clipped accent, the r’s short and fast and the i’s making an ee sound. It wasn’t Morgulian, but there were several places in Liath that had similar tones. None of them were near Oakhurst, or the Sunless Citadel.
Speechless, Warren glared at Anastri and Ash. “You know this person?”
Anastri at least had the decency to look slightly guilty. “I met her down here maybe half an hour ago. I was going to tell you guys, but it completely slipped my mind.”
“I just didn’t care enough.” Ash stalked over to Ria, who had seated herself on a bough of her tree with her legs dangling. “But now that she’s back I care a whole lot more. Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“Where are your parents? You look barely fifty.” There was a pause. “What?” Warren said indignantly at group. “I was feeling left out of the questioning.”
Ria slipped down from the tree and landed lightly on her feet. “My name is Ria Briquel, which I already told you and which you have already used as my name. I’m here on my own business, but it just so happens that my business aligns with yours and so,” she spread her arms out wide, “I’m here to help you. You’re welcome.”
Warren clapped his hands together. “Well, I guess that’s settled then. You seem interesting. Nobody else here is interesting. I propose that she joins the group.”
“How do we know if we can trust her,” Ash insisted and took a step toward where the wood elf was standing.
In a flash she was gone, only a rustling of leaves marking her passage through the tree. Ash tried to move forward again, but his feet were bound by snakelike vines wrapped around his ankles and he collapsed to the ground. Out of the tree Ria dropped like a cat, landing directly on Ash’s back with a knife in her hand. Leaning close, she whispered “If you couldn’t trust me, you wouldn’t be here to worry about it,” and stepped down onto the grass again. All of this occurred in the few seconds it took for the rest of them to realize what was going on, stand, and draw their weapons. Ria smiled sweetly.
“Well. I propose we move forward. Any of you have some rope?”