I take Tiska over to see Naryu, who’s on a bedroll and under a blanket. Tiska complains about the smell of death and poison and chastises Nebayans for not being good fixers. I tell her a little of what happened and ask how much she knows about magic that isn’t the dryad’s. She says she’s only pretending to be an Osadan Nebayan. I tell her about the strange symbols and Tiska says she saw them past the inn. Tiska says that Naryu is still poisoned, but she’s got some magic that will fix it. She says she’ll carry Naryu back to town if I swear to help kill Sadrasi. I remind her that my telling her she should become an Osadan retainer was a pretty serious offer to help kill Sadrasi. Tiska says she’s asking again because since I protected Spoof, she hasn’t seen any help from the Sadrasi yet. She wants me to swear, but I can’t tell if she’s trying to get something awful out of it like getting me to unknowingly swear the fealty of all my potential future children that I don’t want or take the help so far I start another blood war. I make a very specific promise to help her kill Gavril, the Sadrasi who hired Spoof’s men, and any who get in our way to kill those.
While we wait for the guys to come back, I ask her what she wants to do after she’s done killing Sadrasi. She’s not sure and doesn’t want to think that far ahead. When I ask if she’d like to live with another Dryad once she’s gotten her revenge, she tells me that her Dryad was the last one, and that Tiska is the last of her kind as well. I regret standing between her and Spoof. I squeeze her hand and reaffirm my intentions to help her out.
The guys eventually return. Both of them look calmer, though Prask and Tiska start ribbing each other almost immediately. I take Tiska with me to go get Spoof’s brother. Tiska is surprised by the brutality that Spoof’s men were met with. “Not even this one had planned to do this. Not so fun after they die.” She’s careful to not step on any of the glyphs and thinks they’re evil, but doesn’t know anything about them. She won’t go more than half way down the Great Hall because the air smells like poison and doesn’t think we should bury any of the bodies that might have been contaminated with this shit. Before we go back to look for oil, I want to search better for extra statue bits. Tiska complains the whole time that I should check the room with all the rats instead of ”stupid, evil stinky old beds.”
”You’re gonna have to get my spook to use her hot voice if you really want me to crawl through an active rats’ nest that’s as big as that one probably is.”
Tiska snorts. “This one wonders why Osadan Nebayan’s spook pretends to be a dragon.”
I laugh. Tiska looks upset. “What is funny? Tiska did not laugh when she met a dragon.”
“Her hot voice isn’t pretending to be a dragon. It’s the fire of desire, not the real stuff.” There’s extra laughter at how ridiculous my answer was.
“This one thinks she does not know Nilrae long enough to have this talk.” She looks embarrassed.
”Aw, sorry, kiddo.”
She adds, in her sing-song voice, “This one also thinks Osadan Nebayan is very strange for wanting that kind of fire in rat’s nest. Tiska just wants dinner and to go ‘Boo!’ to the little rats. But this one does not know enough about stupid Nebayans to judge.”
I tell her I’ll let her search the nest then. After a bit of searching, we eventually find a crevasse hidden behind some stuff. Tiska says she’ll let me go first. The narrow, zigzagging tunnel threatens to squeeze the breath out of us as it descends deeper into the earth. Near the end, I can hear the tinkle of water. Eventually, we pop out into a small cavern, filled with incredibly old bedrolls which aren’t as disgusting as the ones up above were, even before the crazy happened. A deep pool of water, about 10 feet wide, takes up the southern half of the cavern. Tall wooden boards, old and rotted, lean against the west wall, across from where we squeezed out.
“This one wonders how cave people got their wooden things through twisty tunnel.” We figure it out by moving the wooden boards to expose a wider tunnel. Searching the beds, we also find a brass box the size of a fist with a tarnished clasp shaped like a snake. We’re both interested in what’s going on this far below the surface and continue down the new tunnel.
Loot: brass box
The tunnel gets wider as it slopes downward at a steeper angle. The orangish rock is giving way to a paler green. Tiska sniffs at the air periodically. She grips her spear tighter the further we go. The tunnel starts to turn and flatten out. We can see distant light up ahead, but not from any torch or lantern. It’s a blue that reminds me of the water off the coast of Salt. Tiska wonders if it’s light bugs very deep below the earth and I tell her that my mother says there are fish that light up very deep in the sea.
We sneak towards the light – as we get closer, we realize the light is coming from above the tunnel, as the the tunnel intersects with a large cavern. The ceiling seems a long way above us, and looks like the inside of one of the geodes my father kept from the mine for little Lanochka. I’m not sure where the light is coming from, but it’s being reflected by a ceiling of blue crystals. The tunnel drops sharply, intersecting with the cavern about 15 meters above the floor. A broken stone road runs through tall fungal growths and vegetation that looks like it should be at the bottom of the sea.
Tiska quickly gets distracted by a strange creature moving through the vegetation. On the opposite side of the cavern, I hear footsteps of an approaching party. Tiska eventually loses interest in the thing she can’t hunt from this high up and watches the eastern gateway with interest. Under the archway, a group of six figures, built heavily, marches into the cavern in loose formation. They wear armor of uneven and malformed condition, like it’s creators could not keep their thoughts on finishing it. What spots are still untarnished glimmer bronze under the crystalline sky. They march lock-step in a trianglular formation. At its point marches one with a large tome, bound in metal plates, hanging from it’s belt. They march with strange staves that open out to one end, held mostly horizontally as they walk.
The longer we watch them, the more I realize their lockstep formation march is flawed. They walk like tired soldiers, long without rest. One or two limp with injuries and none of them seem unscathed. Tiska hisses quietly as they pass along the road beneath us. The five that march behind the leader wear heavy packs that bulge with uneven packing. One wears a helmet that has broken to reveal strange features. Gaunt cheeks and dark, mottled skin, with a flat nose. What little I can make out of the eyes marks them as deeply sunken. They are unlike any people I’ve ever seen.
The one with the broken helmet starts to lag behind about halfway through the tunnel. The rest of the group doesn’t stop until, when the gap between them has grown to maybe 10 meters, and they’ve nearly cleared the cavern, the one with the broken helmet collapses face first on the road. The group stops, and parts so that the one in the lead can walk between the ranks, and they reverse formation. Halfway to the collapsed figure, they pause – this time suddenly and not in time with one another. The one in front raises a hand. We start to hear a rumbling approaching from the eastern tunnel. A sense of dread starts to creep into my awareness. A low noise sounds from Tiska’s throat. She slides on her belly a bit further back in the tunnel and I follow suit.
The five figures still standing raise their staves toward the archway as the rumbling gets louder and for the second time tonight, my ears are suddenly assaulted by loud, explosive rapports. Smoke and fire belch from their weapons. The smoke is acrid and black. I hear an insectile hiss and chittering from down the tunnel. Chitinous impacts. The figure on the floor starts to twitch and fidget unnaturally. With the first explosion, Tiska retreats quickly back up the tunnel, but I hold my ground, at least poised to scurry back.
The chittering gets louder, and the figures pause to rearm their weapons. Nearly opaque whitish ooze starts to puddle under the figure on the floor. One of the others notices it, points it out. Panic starts to set in amongst the group. There is movement in the puddle. The group tries to put more distance between themselves and the fallen figure as the puddle grows, and starts to flow slowly in the direction of the steadily retreating survivors. I see long, spindly chitinous legs start to thrust out of the eastern archway, anchoring into stone and dirt to pull whatever they’re connected to behind.
Tiska starts screaming for her stupid Nebayan to move as the chittering reaches a thunderous crescendo and is met by more explosions. I oblige her and we’re both struggling for breath by the time we make it to the room with the beds. Tiska is panicked and twitching. I am, too, but trying to channel it into productivity by replacing the boards in the hopes that whatever’s down there will be fooled by it. I grab her hand and tug her back up to the others. We’re both too scared and run ragged to talk.
Spoof’s bundled up and Prask is prowling when we get back. He says we’ve been gone for hours and neither he nor the Marshfolk could find us. We’re all scared once I fill them in; Spoof especially since Tiska’s acting like him. We’re scared to stay in the caves but scared for Naryu’s health if we leave. I want Chance, and tell Prask I’d rather go chase down a spookfight than ever see any of the stuff down below ever again. I decide that I’m not going to let the Marshfolk potentially get attacked without my being here tonight, Prask decides Naryu can’t travel yet and that he won’t leave her, Spoof says he won’t leave alone, and Tiska says she’s not worse than a wounded bunny, so I guess we’re all staying the night in this god awful cave. I take Tiska to go meet the Marshfolk and clean up.
The Speaker says that long ago is people traded with some people who loved underground. They acted strange, but not like bad automatons like the ones we saw. He’s nice to and interested in Tiska, who is completely uninterested in him. He seems more relaxed during this conversation, but I can’t figure out why. Maybe he’s just glad to know I didn’t get killed somewhere in the caves. When I ask about it, he says that perhaps he’s growing used to being a Speaker who speaks and that our interactions give him no reason to not chill out. He talks to Tiska for a bit and I tell him that she helped with Naryu’s poison problem, which makes me unsure what the black stuff was.
He asks if he can speak with me for a moment and leads me back to the pillar, and Tiska follows, though she’s reluctant to pass the glowing statue. The Speaker says he returned to the room with the statue to clean up the mess that came from Naryu but found that it had vanished. I warn Tiska about what the pillar does and she looks at me curiously, then gasps when she sees it. She takes a couple steps back, mouth still agape. The Speaker watches her reaction, pausing in his story. She covers her eyes quickly and turns away from the pillar, retreating back down the the tunnel.
I tell the Speaker I don’t know why she ran off. ”She knows about some types of magic and has strong feelings about even more.” I excuse myself to chase after her to make sure she’s okay. She’s back near the stream, pacing and mumbling questions and answers to herself quickly, and not entirely in Nethonese. She turns at the sound of my voice, eyes still wide.
“This one should not have seen that.”
“No, no, no. This one is not ready, did not learn enough.”
She opens her mouth to speak but quickly changes her mind, she shakes her head, “Nothing, Nebayan. This one did not learn it from the Dryad.”
”Who did you learn it from?”
A realization comes over her, her eyes go wide. “That is what Osadan Nebayan made sick Naryu touch?!”
”Yeah, that’s what I’ve been saying this whole time. It negates magic when you touch it.”
She starts pacing again, hands on her face. “No, no, no, no. This one is not ready for this.”
She speaks slowly. “This one needs to know if any other of Nilrae’s friends touched it.”
“My spook did. I was going to, but it’s been busy in these caves.”
“No! Osadan Nebayan cannot touch it. No, no, no, no.” She shakes her head, anxious, “What about spook friend? Was spook hurt like Naryu? Blood?”
Tiska’s visibly stressed. She says she needs to be there when Naryu wakes up, but refuses to tell me why. She says I need to trust her, that the pillar isn’t for Nebayans but isn’t evil. She leaves to go take care of Naryu and casually reveals that the Speaker is actually a spirit. I head back to him. He’s worried about Tiska, then for Naryu as he repeats his findings and shows me the spots on the ground where the black stuff fell and left trails in the dust leading to the pillar.
I feel guilty and reckless and while I’m glad the Speaker’s reiterating his promise to not allow his people near the thing, I tell him I’d be tempted to slice my palm and slap it on the pillar in solidarity if Spoof and Prask could get both of us to Eaves. The Speaker obviously doesn’t think that’s a good idea. I’m out of useful things to do for now. “Well, I’m gonna get back to the others and figure out if I’m gonna fester quietly about this or try to pick at something for the rest of the night. Good night, Speaker. Don’t hesitate to distract me with anything you need.”
My companions are obviously fighting, and I hear them well before I see them. Prask and Tiska have their weapons out. Tiska’s crouched defensively before Naryu. Spoof is trying to talk them into putting their weapons away, but it’s only further agitating Tiska. Prask says Tiska was trying to hold Naryu hostage. Tiska says Prask wouldn’t let her near Naryu. Prask says he didn’t want her near her because he didn’t know why she was interested and didn’t know where I was, since I’m the only one with ‘control over her.’ I remind him that I don’t have control over her and simply approach her like she’s not a rabid animal. Prask doesn’t deny that he thinks of Tiska that way and instead says that I don’t know what it was like before I arrived. They continue to squabble. I’m infinitely grateful I have plenty of sisters who can carry on my family line without my direct participation.
“This one thinks maybe angry Nebayan man should be left alone..” Quickly, “Outside the cave, maybe?” She addresses the last to me, hopefully.
”See?! This is what I’m talking about!”
“So she’s got an abrasive personality. So does everyone in this cave except Spoof.”
Prask sighs and says he’s just worried about Naryu, whom he’s known since childhood. I tell him a bit about the rock and Tiska’s knowledge of it and successfully draw the full attention of his agitation. He doesn’t like that I risked Naryu since they have a witch even though we didn’t think Naryu would survive the journey back to Eaves. Tiska doesn’t want to say more about the pillar. She wants me to trust her. I give it to her, for now, and ask Prask if there’s any family members left in town that I’ll have some ‘splainin to do to once we get back. Apparently it’s just her and her dad. Tiska says she doesn’t think Naryu will die, and I remind Prask that that’s better than what we thought before Naryu touched the rock. He switches the topic to watches.
Spoof goes first. Prask gives him his sidearm in case anything happens. I get the sense he’s not really talking about outside threats.
It’s colder when Prask wakes me up for the third shift. I ask if there’s any change with Naryu and he gestures with his eyes to indicate that Tiska’s still awake, staring at Naryu with her arms around her knees, shivering. “I already offered her a blanket or two so don’t put that on me.” I kind of want to anyway, just because he said it before I could think to question him in the first place. He heads to his bedroll to try to get warm. Tiska lets me approach and wrap one of my already warm blankets around her shoulders. At the very end of my shift, I notice a small fleck of snow start to fall. I head over to ask Tiska if she’s good to do her watch or needs me to stay up. She says I look tired, and when I remind her I’m not the one pulling an all nighter, she shakes her head. “This one has a lot to remember.” She regretfully confesses, “Tiska was not the best student for the Dryad.”