Devryn - "What Awaits in the Darkness"
The Perussians have a singular word for those moments when your life is given to the Fates, ef-fa-timat. My father’s death was my first. Twelve at the time, I found myself abandoned in the city of Ardal, capital to the elven empire. Our small troupe disbanded the week before, leaving me to find my way on the unkind streets of the massive urban sprawl.
The night in the Lamb’s Slaughter Tap House in Ebold’s Way was the second. The hustle went sideways, but I survived… sorta. If the loss of my father sent me into the Four Winds reeling, this moment sent me to the gates of the underworld. I spent a few months in an elven prison for that indiscretion before being transported to the Illuminated Three Peaks. There, I met the relentless taskmaster who made me the man I am today. I can still hear that elven bastard’s vile words during that first meet. “I’ll break your spirit, boy. I will make you mine.” He wasn’t wrong.
I wanted to believe this moment was different than those. But by all accounts, that weightless feeling of spinning on that unhindered breeze filled my belly.
Moments of reflection can be so insightful.
The quiet returned. In one hand I held a bloody blade. The other, a thick, vellum scroll with a silk ribbon wrapped around the middle, which quaked with an unfamiliar energy. While in the Illuminated Peaks, I learned to hunt mages. They subjected me to a number of trials that exposed me to various forms of magic. This was easily beyond anything those spell-slingers threw at me. Staring at the stone wall, I forced my thoughts to clear, remembering my training to reverberate through my core. Intent and focus were everything.
You found yourself a treasure, did you?
My unwanted companion sat on an empty shelf eyeing the scroll. “What do make of this,” lifting it slightly, but not offering.
If I were to call you a pebble, it is a boulder… no, a mountain. The imp climbed up the bookcase to the next shelf, sliding a thin, decrepit book out of its way.
Ignoring his cryptic words, I walked the edge of the room, probing for any reasonable exit while grabbing at the remaining glass cases, looking for anything to improve my situation. Climbing out through the ceiling was not an option and no doors along the walls to this dismal study stood apparent. Inside one case lay a gathered garment of a dark cloth, a deep gray, with white threading knotted along the edges of a high collar. Freeing the thickly woven pile of the brass-framed cover, a quick flick, and it opened into a longcoat. Pulling the sturdy fabric on, my hands patted its length to expel the ever-present dust and flatten the aged creases. I opened the front to discover a pocket on each side. Sliding the scroll into the top, releasing it from my grasp, it disappeared into the cloth. Frantic, my hands felt no shape or weight in the coat. Reaching back in, I found my searching fingers curling around the scroll, pulling it free of the coat.
Magic. I’m kinda tired of having my world upended by this shit.
I returned the scroll to the pocket to continue my search, looking at the imp as I did so, waiting for any reaction. Nothing.
Glancing down, the lower foot of the bookcase was made into a cabinet with narrow, iron-barred windows. I opened the delicate swing-latch and shattered glass dribbled out onto the floor, followed by the collapsing of a decayed wooden self. On the left side, a slight grove in the stone, a slender space about four feet in height, between the tall bookcase and a section of lined, shallow cubbies. A false door?
I ran my fingers along the void, feeling for anything that would help. At waist level, my fingertips disappeared into the rock, passing an illusory surface. Pressing further, I pressed a release and the hidden door jerked slightly free. Seeing a lip, I pulled the squat door open to reveal a short hallway. The imp jumped down to land on my shoulder, peering in with me.
At the opposite end, another groove framed the edge of a hidden door with a steel cylinder to the right. I slowly made my way to the button, checking to be sure nothing unusual about this corridor and pressed the cold projection. A suppressed click and my escape was evident. On the other side, another passage. The hall extended in either direction, my sight showing no end to either after about thirty feet.
“You brought me down here. Which way?”
With a snap of its wings, the imp launched into the air, off my shoulder, to cling to the far wall. Its head swung back and forth, pausing briefly to consider. With a toothy grin, it shrugged its shoulders with indifference.
“Great. Left it is.”
I paced my steps out, pausing after twenty to listen. At a corner or intersection, I waited a bit longer, hoping for any clues or potential threats. My nefarious companion kept oddly silent as we trekked on. Sometimes he glided back and forth or rested on my shoulder. Other times, he remained invisible… but I sensed his nearby presence.
Reaching a third intersection, my patience paid off. Faint voices echoed from the left corridor. I waited to see if they were drawing near but it was impossible to tell. Steeping as lightly as possible, I crept that direction. A left curve and another intersection. Just before the split though, a hole about three feet high led into the right wall, carved into the rock. I pressed on and found two more before the passage opened into an enormous chamber. The voices rang clearer here.
The ceiling disappeared into the darkness above with the ground ahead stepping up to a raised platform. The climb blocked my vision of the whole room. A set of wide stairs gave reasonable access while the platform stretched into either direction, out of sight. Stepping onto the base step, the voices carried from ahead. Staying low, I crawled up the steps on hands and knees, to rest on the edge at the top.
I peeked over the lip of the stone rise, torches moved between rock formations and sections of strung-up canvas. Soldiers stood around talking in small groups, one such group around a large table. The scene erupted into a frenzy as high-pitched squeals called from the darkness. Short, figures deftly sprinted in from the left, crashing into the unprepared quarry.
The groups melded into a spiraling melee of blades and claws. The creatures pounced and grappled the soldiers, digging into the soft spots. At the table, one soldier barked out orders, but the battle was beyond his control at this point.
My chance had come. Keeping low, I shuffled to the right, using anything I could for cover as I climbed over and skirted the light. The distant wall was lit by a pair of torches, marking a passageway out. After a quick glance to the center of the chamber to be sure all was clear, I sprinted to the exit.
The passage immediately dipped downward as I jogged its length. A chalked arrow pointed to the left at the first intersection. As you wish.
After passing two alcoves, a right turn ended at the base of stairs leading up. I bounded up taking two steps at a time, I quickly passed through two landing alcoves, slowing to catch my breath. The second had three short burrows splitting off, similar to the ones before. Continuing on, the next landing gave me pause. Torches revealed a larger alcove with a wooden barricade blocking my immediate access. No one was presently manning the post but I heard steps rushing down the stairs that entered the room at the back.
Not good. I sped down to the last alcove. The thumping of boots grew louder. Damn this day and these holes.
I looked around for the imp, he remained unseen. Pointing the sword forward, I squatted down and crawled my way into the closest hole. This one was a bit roomy, so that was a win. After about five minutes, my journey ended in a drop-off. The burrow looked down onto an enormous cavern. A dim, pale yellow glow emitted from patches of fungus to show the floor was littered with bone. That win was short-lived.