Dexterity: 10 + 1
Most used abilities: Dark Bond
Most used weapon skills: Dagger Throw, Sneak Attack, Lunge, Spear Throw, Throat Opener
“What do you do for a living?”
Evidently, Devi’lynn still hadn’t given up on trying to figure me out. Well, at least she is talking to me now. We were currently waiting for the rest of the group with Vuplu, so the old man played the role of an interpreter once again. There would be four Thardos coming with us (or more precisely, we would be going with them), but they took their time arriving.
“I’ve just graduated a few months ago,” I replied. “I have an art degree, and currently I’m an illustrator.”
Vuplu was just staring at me, uncomprehending. Right, maybe concepts like these don’t exist in this world. I took my time clarifying what I meant. It was still too early in the morning (or whatever part of the day it was when we woke up) and I hadn’t drunk my coffee yet.
“I draw and paint, and others buy my artwork,” I said with a yawn. “You could say that I’m an artist.”
The old man was still looking at me strangely, but he translated my words. He should have been thankful that I didn’t have any of those long and fancy job titles. There were several professions in my world that would be a pain to explain in simple terms.
“That’s a woman’s job,” Devi’lynn said with a frown. I was beginning to suspect that if a feminist from Earth happened to find their world, they would instantly have a stroke.
“In my world – sometimes – women become leaders, and men stay at home to take care of the children,” I replied. I had no patience to explain the wonders of gender equality right now, though I was sure Devi’lynn would have liked it. Chances were good that she had already fantasized about such things.
“So… it means that men sometimes don’t learn how to fight?” the Sylven girl said, eyeing me up and down with a grin. “Yes, that explains a few things.”
I shrugged. I was already immune to remarks about my physique. Besides, after what happened yesterday she deserved something to even the score, so I let this one go. However, I wondered why Devi’lynn and Teva’ryn brought up this ‘men fight, women do not’ thing quite often. Maybe fighting took a central place in their life. Maybe the Sylven were so overpopulated by males, that they didn’t have anything better to do than kill each other off in wars.
“Ah, there they are, finally!” Vulpu grumbled. Four burly Thardos were heading in our direction. They were quite massive by Thardos standards, but were still smaller than me or Devi’lynn. I realized that the one in the lead was one of the bodyguards from the previous day.
“Nallo, is everyone ready?” Vuplu asked when they got closer.
“Yes. We also brought all of our acid bombs,” the bodyguard said in a surprisingly high voice that didn’t fit his frame at all. He handed two of the golf ball sized ceramic spheres to me and two to Devi’lynn.
“Alright, be careful with those bombs,” Vuplu cautioned us. “They are very effective against the armored spiders, but the acid is difficult to produce so we don’t have much. Good luck with the expedition, and don’t forget to get the staff!” And just like that, he began to limp away, not waiting for us to say anything.
“Follow us,” Nallo told me, then all four of them began moving down the tunnel.
Well, so much for introductions. Nallo and his buddies didn’t seem to be the chatty types, but at least they wouldn’t alert the spiders with their constant speech. As I hurried after them, I shivered at the thought of being sent on this mission with Imaya instead of Devi’lynn.
The alutnarat was trying desperately to turn over from its back, but Nallo pinned it down with his shield. One of Nallo’s men trust a spear into the spider’s underside, right next to shield. That part of its body wasn’t protected by hardened carapace like the rest, so the spearhead slid in easily. The creature died after a few moments of struggling, bringing up the number of spiders killed to three.
This recon mission wasn’t what I had imagined at all. The ‘sneaking around’ part was still applicable – the Thardos gave us some kind of soft fabric with which we covered our boots to reduce the noise of our footsteps – but once we came across a spider in one of the tunnels, we didn’t even bother remaining undetected. It kind of made sense: there weren’t many hiding places in the narrow tunnels, and it wouldn’t be good tactic leaving enemies behind us anyways. Luckily, each time it was only a single alutnarat that found us. Even better was that I didn’t have to fight, as the tunnels were mostly wide enough for only two people.
This was the first alutnarat where they didn’t use the acid, so now I could finally examine the corpse in its full glory. Calling the creature armored spider had some merit, though it wasn’t a spider at all. The most glaring difference was that it had no head. It had a body just a bit smaller than my torso, with a beak-like protrusion on one end of it. Next to the beak, there were two antennae that the creature had used to take in its surroundings. The spider part came in when one looked at its legs: though they were sturdier than an average arachnid’s, there were eight of them. On each side, the uppermost and the lowermost legs had hardened armor on them, looking like vicious spikes. Vuplu had explained us that those legs were not only their weapons, but perfect digging tools as well. They would use their remaining legs to support themselves as they were chipped away the rocks with spikes that were harder than metal.
Our group of six had two large wooden shields, though I didn’t think they would be too effective against those spiked legs. As I had just witnessed, they could be used to pin the creatures down, but they wouldn’t stop a strike head on. I didn’t like the fact that Nallo brought us no defensive gear for this mission, but I had to admit that I wouldn’t have tried to block the spiders’ attacks anyways. Pinning down the legs seemed risky enough that I had no intention to attempt it.
“We are getting near the village now,” Nallo murmured as we began moving once again.
Sure enough, we didn’t have to walk too much to arrive to an intersection where two other tunnels joined ours. We still couldn’t see the village, but there was a notable aspect to one of the corridors: a translucent, crimson wall was covering the passage. It reminded me of that Ability of Lukas, only in different color.
“Let me guess, that’s where we were supposed to go,” I said as Nallo cautiously edged closer to the barrier.
He just nodded, then poked at the barrier with one finger. The barrier shimmered, and Nallo jerked back his hand as if it had been stung.
“Blood magic,” he announced as he walked back to us.
“Wh-what? Blood magic?” I asked skeptically, “You mean magic that needs a living sacrifice and is usually used by evil mages?”
“Eh? No of course not. It is called blood magic because it affects people with a certain type of blood. In this case, probably every Thardos,” he answered. I had a bad feeling about where this was going.
“Great,” I said. “Now that we know that there aren’t only spiders down here, we can go back and report this to Vuplu. I mean, it was surely not the alutnarat who made this barrier, right?”
“We can’t head back just yet,” Nallo said, shaking his head. “We are close to the observatory and I believe you two can pass through without any problem.”
He didn’t waste time cutting to the heart of the matter, I have to give him that. He also totally ignored my concerns about other creatures – possibly a mage – being down here. I narrowed my eyes and gave him the best piercing stare I could muster.
“Look, I don’t think it’s dangerous. We are listening in you know,” he said, flicking his triangular ear with one finger, “and we can’t hear any signs of life from the vicinity of the observatory. It’s highly unlikely that you would encounter anything, but if we hear anything, we will shout for you to retreat, got it?”
“No. I mean, yes I got it, but why don’t we try to find an other entrance instead?”
“They are too far away. This one is the closest to our target. And the other entrances could be sealed off too.”
Indeed, they could be. We also didn’t know why the village was closed off. Or at least I didn’t know why it was. I decided to voice my suspicion.
“You knew about this blood magic, right? That’s why you needed us.”
“Eh? No, of course not. This hasn’t been here last time we were scouting.”
Goddamn alien expressions. I couldn’t read anything out of his face, but I could have sworn that his voice was a bit higher pitched than usual. I supposed that they had deliberately omitted this information when we had discussed our deal. Armored spiders were one thing, but someone intelligent enough to cast barriers was an other. Still, I more or less expected complications – or I could say, betrayals – like this, so I didn’t become angry… too much. At least now I knew the reason why they needed two Players.
I nodded to him sullenly. I managed to surprise him with that: he definitely expected me to argue further. Even I was a bit surprised with my own reaction, but at the moment I didn’t have patience to listen to any more of their lies and excuses. I knew I couldn’t just refuse to cooperate if I wanted them to lead us back to the surface, so I didn’t bother to object. We could at least check out what was on the other side, then run back here at the barest hint of danger.
Devi’lynn didn’t know what was going on, so I gestured her to follow me to the barrier. Nosy was already there, curiously measuring up the shining wall. I stopped right in front of the blood-red wall to study it before going in. I couldn’t see any marks on the stone, but the barrier fit the passageway perfectly, giving me the impression that it was part of something larger. Maybe it was actually a huge orb, passing through everything in the ground. I poked it with one finger like Nallo did, and the tip of my finger passed through without resistance. Now I knew that my finger could get through safely, but was it really safe for every part of my body? What if it affected my mind? What if it was a trap and the barrier would turn solid behind me?
After a bit of thinking, I picked up Nosy and hurled him across the barrier. I wasn’t one for animal cruelty, but hey, it was better him than us. The cat landed with a furious hiss on the other side, then sprinted back and jumped at me. I was barely able to dodge him, but couldn’t avoid his follow-up lunge, which had enough momentum to make me stumble to the other side the barrier. A short wrestling match ensued, with Nosy playfully biting me more than a dozen times before I managed to pin him down, hugging him to my chest so that he couldn’t move.
I turned back to see everyone looking at me. The four Thardos wore strange expressions that I couldn’t interpret, but Devi’lynn was clearly amused.
“What you wait for?” I asked the Sylven with a smile, “Hurry up! I cannot wait for you all day!”
The silence was so ominous that it made me shiver. I was straining my ears but I didn’t hear the pattering of eight arthropod legs, just our breathing and the soft sound of our footsteps. Grey, polished rock formations were looming all around us: those had to be the buildings where the Thardos had lived. There were openings for doors, but the walls were completely windowless. However, this didn’t necessarily mean that there weren’t any other openings on the walls at the moment, as the work of the armored spiders could be seen everywhere. Almost every third building had a gaping hole that the monsters had created to get inside.
The corridor widened out considerably when we entered the village, to the point that I was beginning to think that the whole area was larger than the cavern where Devi’lynn had fallen down. We didn’t have to spend more than a few minutes walking and before we arrived to the observatory. The building was way bigger than any of the other buildings, with a smooth rounded wall that reached up so far, that I couldn’t make out where it met the ceiling in the dim light that our collars provided.
My first instinct was to rush inside – it would be easier to avoid the spiders if we weren’t out in the open – but then I saw the wooden door that was broken to splints. The trail of blood leading inside was also a pretty big reason to reconsider my approach. I briefly considered retreating, but didn’t want to give up just yet. Besides, the stains could have been weeks old for all I knew. I created a Dark Bond on Soul Eater, then turned to my Sylven companion.
“Devi’lynn, make other Devi’lynn please,” I whispered her as soundlessly as I could. It was getting annoying that I didn’t know the words which described their Abilities – like clone or portal – so I made a mental note to learn them sometime soon.
Devi’lynn made a copy of herself without complaint, but she looked at me questioningly. I told her to send the clone inside and pointed at the doorway. She nodded, but her clone was just standing in place with a blank expression on its face. Devi’lynn frowned for a few moments, concentrating on her simulacrum. It took an unsteady step forward and promptly fell over. Devi’lynn sighed, then dismissed the clone. The black smoke in its place couldn’t even evaporate completely before the Sylven girl created another copy of herself.
This one began walking the moment it was free from its creator’s body. Interesting, I mused. I hadn’t known before, but it seemed that the clones had difficulties receiving orders after they were created. Sadly, this one’s aim was a bit off and it walked face-first into the wall, right next to the doorway. It didn’t give up, though: over and over it tried to go forward, colliding with the stone in a way that was painful even to watch. Devi’lynn hurried to her imbecile twin sister’s rescue, pushing it from the side so that it found the entrance.
I was stupid enough to get distracted by the clone and forget about being alert for danger. The next few seconds happened so fast, that I barely had time to react. As the clone entered the chamber inside, an armored spider immediately pounced on it. At the same time, a second monster crawled out of the doorway, heading straight for Devi’lynn.
However, she was way more prepared than I was. I had to admit that in her place I would have totally cried out in my fright – possibly luring in a few more spiders from the neighborhood – but she just threw herself to the side without a sound. Even though the spider didn’t even have eyes to see, its jump was frighteningly precise. Although the spiked legs found only empty air, the creature’s beak latched onto Devi’lynn’s billowing hair, yanking her to the ground.
Nosy pounced on the spider in the next moment but I didn’t see what happened next, as I took out one of my acid balls and turned to face the other creature. It was already charging at me, having dispatched the clone in no time. I threw the ceramic orb, but my arm wasn’t aided by any of the weapon skills this time. What’s more, I couldn’t even see the monster on the floor properly, because the holo-projection of myself was perfectly blocking my sight. It was no wonder that I missed, completely wasting the acid which splattered all over the stone walls.
I didn’t have time to get the second acid ball from my pocket, so my only choice was to dodge the incoming attack. I backed into the wall on the side of the tunnel, then threw my dagger upwards. Just before the spider could collide with me, I teleported to the weapon. The spider slammed spikes-first into the wall, its legs creating small dents in the stone. I was in the perfect position to see all of this, thanks to my previous experiments in the forest. Being able to determine in which position to arrive after teleporting was one of the first tricks I have learned about my Ability.
With my knees bent, I fell down to the top of the creature. My legs slid off its back and pushed the legs to the ground, my knees pinning down its foremost limbs. The armored spider tried to shake me off, but I was too heavy and its legs were in an awkward angle. It couldn’t get his legs under its body to gain some leverage, and the joints couldn’t bend backwards to hurt me either. Seeing that I had the upper hand, I grabbed Soul Eater with both hands. I angled the blade downwards, then stabbed it into the base of the creature’s ‘neck’, where the beak met the armored carapace.
Though it wasn’t the toughest part of the creature, my blade couldn’t penetrate the monster’s hide and slid off to the side. However – judging by the spider’s increased struggles – it was still somewhat effective. My collar displayed a new message, informing me that I have discovered a new skill called Power Stab. Unlike the notification upon discovering Sneak Attack, this one was actually very useful. Thanks to the message, I knew the name of the skill and could began using it immediately.
As I began repeating the term Power Stab in my head again and again, I could immediately see the difference. My strikes didn’t slide off anymore, hitting the same spot over and over with loud clangs that echoed through the cavern. Soul Eater was supposed to be made of some kind of tough material so I wasn’t really worried about it getting damaged, but I still dismissed my Dark Bond, just in case. After a dozen or so Power Stabs, the armor finally gave in and my blade sank into the spider with a crunching noise.
After the creature stopped twitching, I stood up and looked towards Devi’lynn. I didn’t know how they had done it, but she and Nosy somehow managed to kill the spider without using any acid bombs. Nosy’s fire spit was still burning here and there on the stone, and I could see Devi’lynn’s rapier had some fluid dripping from its end. I started to walk towards them to see if any of them got hurt, when Devi’lynn began pointing a finger frantically at me. At first I didn’t get what she was doing, but when she palmed one of her acid bombs realization dawned on me and I pivoted immediately.
A third armored spider was scuttling towards me, no doubt drawn here by the noise of our fighting. Though both Devi’lynn and I didn’t utter so much as a yelp, my repeated hammering of the spider’s carapace wasn’t exactly silent. And I have dismissed my Bond! I realized with horror, freezing for a precious moment, not knowing what to do. I had no time to recreate the enchantment on Soul Eater, and no time to get my remaining bomb and throw it. I could try to dodge by sidestepping, but I wasn’t sure that I had good enough reflexes for that.
In the next instant a ceramic ball flew past my right ear and hit the spider squarely on the front, just as it was preparing to lunge at me. The ball shattered and the acid was sprayed all over the creature, which began to writhe in pain. It didn’t take long before the spider stopped moving, having its legs on the front fallen off and its beak melted completely.
I was shocked and astonished at the same time. As I looked back, I found the Sylven girl smiling smugly behind me. She could have hit me with the acid right at the back of my head! Still, I had to give it to her, it was a damn good throw. Probably saved me from suffering impalement-by-spider-legs, which made it difficult to be mad at her.
“Thanks, but let’s hurry in,” I whispered to her and headed for the doorway. I didn’t know if this turn of events could be considered lucky or unlucky. On one hand, we were fortunate that only one additional spider thought about joining the party. On the other hand, why did the observatory have two of these creatures?
Once we were inside, I very consciously tried not to look at the half-eaten corpse of a Thardos that was lying by the wall. I quickly pushed all the furniture I could find – a large cabinet and a table – in front of the door. It wouldn’t stop the spiders that could chip away at the rocks themselves, but at least it would slow them down. That done, I turned to inspect my companions from up-close.
Nosy was licking a cut on his left paw, but otherwise seemed to be fine. I checked him so thoroughly for other cuts that he got annoyed with me and limped away to treat his wound on his own. As for Devi’lynn… she was literally beaming with pride.
“I won, Randel! I fought and I won!” was what she said, most likely. I still had troubles understanding the past tense in their language, but I just had to look at her dazzling smile and I could easily discern the meaning. While she was babbling something about she killing two while I only killed one, I examined her wounds.
Because of her collar’s menu, I could tell at a first glance how injured she was. Her 3D projection had her wounds highlighted with glowing colors. By now, I had a pretty good approximation what the color-range was: my wound above the knee had been indicated with light yellow – though I didn’t notice it immediately, so it could had been different when I received it – while Teva’ryn’s limbs had been highlighted in dark red, which turned into light red and then orange over the days.
I was pleased to see that the only wound that the projection indicated was a yellow-colored one on her right arm. However, it didn’t mean that Devi’lynn had no other wounds: I could see a cut across her cheek, reaching from her nose to the base of her ear. It was so swallow that the collar probably didn’t consider it worth mentioning. I couldn’t see any other injury, though my cloak – which she still hadn’t given back to me – was practically ripped to sheds. I sighed, then I realized that she had stopped talking and was watching me instead. I pointed at her right arm that she was clutching with her left.
“Does that hurt?”
“Little,” she said with a wince.
As she removed her left hand, I could see that the sleeve of her shirt was soaked in blood. For a moment a perverse part of my mind noted that their blood had the same color as human blood. So their odd skin color isn’t due to their blood, but the pigment in their skin. Shaking these thoughts out of my head, I stepped closer and used Soul Eater to cut off some of the loose ribbons from the cloak. Devi’lynn let me work without a word, at least until I suddenly froze upon realizing how my blade looked like.
“What’s wrong?” Devi’lynn asked when I didn’t budge for a few moments.
“The weapon changed,” I answered distractedly, looking at the glowing orange dot at the base of the blade. Only, it wasn’t simply a dot anymore. Narrow tendrils seemed to be branching out from it, like tiny veins. They didn’t reach very far, but it definitely hadn’t looked like this when I had received the dagger.
I shook myself out of my stupor, then proceeded to bandage the cut on Devi’lynn’s arm. I had to work with semi-clean clothes once again, and this time I didn’t even have water to clean to wound. Still, the bleeding had to be stopped. I just hoped that we would find Teva’ryn soon enough for more extensive medical treatment.
Finally, I took another look around in the room. The smell was quite bad, courtesy of the deceased Thardos. Apart from a few benches carved into the stone walls and the furniture blocking the doorway, the chamber was quite empty. It had been probably some kind of reception with a waiting area. Right behind where the table had been, there was a row of stairs leading upwards. With Devi’lynn’s clone to trigger any possible traps, the exploration of the building began.
Luckily, we didn’t encounter any other spiders. The signs of alutnarats rummaging through everything stopped somewhere around the second floor. Most of the rooms looked like laboratories filled with numerous rocks and crystals, but there were living compartments as well. Chalk boards were used for writing, but sometimes we could find papers with notes on them. All of it was written in the ‘Common language’, though I could make little sense of the tech-talk.
I found it really strange that they didn’t use any doors inside the building, not even at their private chambers. This made looting the rooms for food that much easier. When I found something seemingly edible, at first I had my reservations about eating it – I had no idea what it was – but Devi’lynn decided that she was hungry enough to be our food taster. It tasted like mushrooms – like most of the food down here, unfortunately – but at least it was filling. The water we found was stale so we didn’t drink it, but in one of the rooms we found a small wine collection from which we drank in moderation. I could have sworn that the wine was made out of mushrooms as well, but maybe it was just the aftertaste of the food that I felt.
I also thought about taking new clothes for us, but all of them were too small. I didn’t have kleptomaniac tendencies, but the Thardos weren’t able to get their stuff back, so what was the harm in taking what we needed? At that thought I even wondered if we should take a few of the smaller crystals that they had been examining. I didn’t know how much they were worth, but they could surely help us getting our feet under us once we reached Bildy. I decided to pocket a few especially shiny ones when Devi’lynn wasn’t looking. I had no idea about her morals regarding theft, but she didn’t need to worry about what she didn’t know.
We found the staff in a glass cabinet on the topmost floor. It was made of wood and was about as long as my arm. Covered in carvings from top to bottom, it already seemed to be valuable, but its most prominent feature was the huge orb – nearly as large as my head -attached to the top of the rod. With the help of a few Power Stabs, I got the staff out from the cabinet and inspected the orb from up close. It seemed like a normal glass bubble. I could see some dirt rolling around inside it as I shook the staff slightly, which was a shame, because otherwise this staff would have looked really nice.
“Randel, look,” Devi’lynn spoke up. While I was entranced with the staff, she had opened up a heavy chest which had five more of the glass orbs. I handed the staff to her and gingerly picked up one of the spheres. I raised it into the light of my collar to see it better. There was no dirt in it. Why didn’t they swap the orbs if they had a better looking one?
“Let’s look for… book. For writing,” I told Devi’lynn.
“Why?” she asked with a frown. “We have this. Let’s go back.”
“No,” I said, but didn’t know enough words to object properly. “Just… help me first, alright?” I wanted to find out how to use the staff, plus if it was actually an air purifier or not.
We swept through the whole chamber in no time, but we didn’t find anything describing the staff. It didn’t make sense. Was this a research project or not? If it was a new invention, there had to be notes about it. But no, Vuplu said that it was an heirloom. Why would they put it on the top of a research facility then? This room was the farthest from the only exit of the building, so considering the size of this building, this chamber was the most secluded of place in the whole village. Which would make sense if they wanted to keep the precious heirloom safe, but wouldn’t they want to use something as useful as an air purifier regularly? If it only had sentimental value, would Vuplu risk the safety of this item by giving us the task to recover it?
“Let’s get back already, Randel. There is nothing here,” Devi’lynn complained.
“Wait a little,” I said, then pointed at the entrance of this chamber. “Stand there, please.” Nosy was already curled up in the doorway, so both of them would be out of the way. If we couldn’t find any written material about the staff, I just had to jump straight into the practical tests.
I held the staff in a way that none of its ends pointed towards any of us, then began to experiment. I didn’t believe what Vuplu said about only their elders being able to activate it. The old man had appeared to be especially shifty as he had been explaining that part. I had already discovered two rings around the middle of the staff that could be rotated, and I was sure that the carvings weren’t pointless decorations either.
After several minutes of pressing, poking and rubbing the carvings all I achieved was frustrating Devi’lynn even more. I was annoyed by her as well, asking me every few minutes to head back. It wasn’t like I was making her wait only because I particularly enjoyed rubbing staffs (no pun intended). I could have imagined spending my time with something more exciting.
I held a fear that one had to be a mage in order to use the staff, but tried not to dwell on it too much. If it required mana manipulation or whatnot to be activated, I was screwed… but it was just as likely that it could be operated mechanically. There was no reason not to try out everything I could think of.
I was about to jump into the next section of trials and begin giving vocal orders to the staff – that would have surely annoyed Devi’lynn even more – when it suddenly began vibrating. I was so startled that I almost dropped it. As it turned out, I had to rotate the rings in opposite directions while my thumb was wedged in a dent between the two rings. I held the magical device out further from me. I expected it to shoot laser or something any time soon, but nothing happened besides the soft vibrations. I began waving it cautiously, making Devi’lynn protest, but I was careful not to swing the staff so much that it would point towards them.
Swinging it didn’t do anything either. Is it an air purifier after all? I took my finger off the carving, letting the rings slide back to their original position. When the staff stopped vibrating, I slowly raised it up to my eyes to have another look at the glass orb. It could be that the dirt inside the orb was condensed dust that had been sucked out from the air. Following up on that thought, I looked at the wooden desk near the cabinet. It wasn’t exactly dusty, but it wasn’t clean either. I decided to place the staff near the surface of the wood, then turned it on to see whether it sucked in the dirt.
“Oh shit!” I cursed, immediately jumping back. Half of the table became missing, or more precisely, disappeared in a blink of an eye. The rest of the furniture crashed to ground, looking as if it had been cut in half. I cautiously neared the orb on the end of the staff to the remnants of the desk, just to see the wood gradually disintegrate.
I turned it off and raised the orb to eye level again. Inside, on the top of the dirt, there were tiny little brown flakes: the miniaturized remains of the desk.
I couldn’t help myself and began chuckling. Oh, this was so perfect! I stopped before Devi’lynn could conclude that I have gone nuts, though I was probably still grinning pretty madly. My relief was intoxicating. I had been stressing so much about not finding our way to the surface, about not being able to trust the Thardos, and now all these problems would be solved in one strike.
“Have you ever wondered how the Thardos created their tunnels? Or their village?” I posed the question rhetorically, still looking at the staff.
“What?” Devi’lynn asked.
“How could they form all these buildings? They are all so large, all so smooth! And the rat-people don’t have any natural appendages for digging, like the armored spiders.”
“Randel, I don’t understand! Speak my language, please,” Devi’lynn said with an edge in her voice.
“I show you,” was all I told her, then went to the wall and turned on the staff. With a whoosh, a large chunk of the stone disappeared in a perfect semicircle. It was about a size of an adult Thardos. No wonder that they had created such large tunnels and high ceilings everywhere, if digging was this easy! The crater’s edge was completely smooth, except on the upper side where instead of stone, there had been only soil. It had fallen down in chunks, which made me realize that I would have to be careful with this Super Tunnel Creator if I didn’t want to be crushed to death.
After the brief inspection I got back to ‘digging’, slowly deepening and widening the hole, making sure that the general direction was slightly upwards, and watching the ceiling for dangerous places.
“What are you doing?” Devi’lynn asked.
“Not obvious?” I asked in return. “I find way out.”
“What about the quest? About helping Vuplu?” At her accusing tone, I paused and turned to face her.
“What about him? He lies. I don’t trust him,” I said.
“So you are going to take the — from them? — ?” I guessed she was referring to stealing the staff.
“Yes,” was all I said. I wouldn’t be able to explain my reasons in detail, so it was pointless to argue. I was about to turn back to continue my work, when I saw her drawing her rapier.
“No, you won’t,” she said, pointing the tip towards me. Her pose wasn’t too confident, though.
“Devi’lynn,” I said with a sigh. “I cannot tell you better why I do this. I promise I have answer. I just don’t know the words.” I stepped forward and gently pushed the tip of the blade downwards. “Trust me, please. I explain when I know more of your language.”
I could see it in her eyes that she didn’t like my suggestion, didn’t want to put her beliefs aside just because I said that I would explain myself later… but she also didn’t want to hurt me. When she lowered her weapon I thanked it with a nod. She scowled in return.
I watched her for a few more moments and wondered whether all of the Sylven were like Teva’ryn and Devi’lynn. Always very resolute to do what they thought was the right thing. Disregarding the consequences, even if those consequences affected them negatively. From what I’ve observed in the cave, I believed that Teva’ryn was always like that. By comparison, Devi’lynn seemed to be more… rebellious. Still, when it came to helping others – like that Thardos kid in the tunnel – she didn’t seem to pay much mind for self-preservation.
The thing was, I had trouble deciding whether Devi’lynn failed to recognize that the Thardos were just using us, or she knew it but didn’t care. It could be that Vuplu had been more convincing in her language than in mine, but by this point it should have been obvious to Devi’lynn that the old man had been lying to us. If he had lied about the function of the staff, he could have lied about escorting us to the surface. Maybe I was just paranoid, but I always tried to consider the worst possible outcomes as well.
They had to leave their village in a hurry. We were the only ones down here who could get through that blood magic barrier. While we are down here, why not use us to recover a few more valuable items? And if they were lucky, they wouldn’t even have to kill us in the end. The armored spiders would do the job for them, sooner or later. No news about their current vulnerable state would get out to the surface.
Of course, I didn’t harbor purely negative feelings towards the Thardos. I didn’t trust them, but that didn’t mean that I hated them or wanted to cause them harm. If I could safely give them back the staff after I dug a tunnel to the surface, I would. They were probably in dire need of it, having a whole village of people who had lost their home, and were without any means to build new houses. Or is that really the case? There had to be more than one of these Super Tunnel Creators. Vuplu had implied that there were other Thardos communities out there, and it didn’t make sense to me that a small village would have the only Super Tunnel Creator of this world.
There was something else, though… something, which caused me much discomfort, because I knew that Devi’lynn was right about it. I didn’t trust the Thardos, sure, but Vuplu didn’t trust us either. Should he ever learn that we had escaped with the staff, he would have further reasons not to trust other Players. My actions would definitely make the Thardos even more wary and hostile towards outsiders in the future. It was something that my Sylven companion here probably tried to avoid.
“Hello?” Devi’lynn waved her hands in front of my eyes.
“Ah… sorry, was thinking,” I replied automatically, but then did a double take.
“Wait, when you learn that word?” I asked from Devi’lynn.
“I saw Imaya do this often,” she replied simply.
Wait, often?! We had only spent a few days together in that cave, and half of the time Imaya was crying… I shook my head sadly and went back to work. Devi’lynn is exaggerating, I concluded. It couldn’t have happened more than once, or maybe twice. Plus that other two occasions when I was trying to cook that mystery meat by the fire… and maybe that other time…
After a while I managed to get the hang of the digging, and I began progressing faster and faster. Devi’lynn was waiting in the chamber without a word, but I could see in her expression that she had reservations about following me into the new tunnel. To be honest, it didn’t seem too awe-inspiring because I had to pay a lot of attention to the ceiling. I didn’t want to make the tunnel too wide, as it would have increased the chance of the whole thing caving in.
I was already so far into my home-made tunnel that Devi’lynn’s light seemed faint and distant. Gradually, I became aware of some noise coming from somewhere. Before I could decide what to do, the wall on the right side of the tunnel gave way and left behind a melon-sized hole. My ears were immediately bombarded by the sound of hundreds of pickaxes striking stones. I could make out some light on the other side, so I turned off my staff and cautiously leaned in to have a peek.
What I saw was a spacious chamber, with artfully sculpted pillars holding large torches here and there. On the left, I could make out a throne carved into the stone, decorated with the same delicate carvings as the pillars. It wasn’t quite finished yet, and neither were the sides of the chamber. Though they were still under construction, the noise didn’t come from pickaxes. It came from the swarm of alutnarat that was working on the walls of this underground throne room. Hundreds of spiked legs were chipping away the stones simultaneously, and hundreds of bodies were scuttling over each other, clearing away the excess stone.
I cautiously began backing away, my mind spinning in circles about what to do. I obviously couldn’t continue digging that way, but I had to cover the hole somehow, otherwise the spiders would discover it. Can I put this staff in reverse mode somehow?
I didn’t have time to figure it out, because in the next moment an armored spider appeared on the other side of the hole and stuck its antennae through. For a second I just stood there motionless, holding my breath and hoping that the creature couldn’t hear my heartbeat, even though my heart did its best to jump out of my chest. Then the moment had passed and the spider began wiggling, striking the edge of the hole with its legs, trying to make it wider.
I fumbled to turn the staff on again. I couldn’t hide the existence of the hole now, so I just had to disintegrate this one spider and then run like hell. I hoped that the alutnarat wouldn’t follow us through the several levels of the observatory. Then, I could always try to dig in an other direction.
When the magical device started vibrating, I immediately poked it at the creature. Unfortunately, things happened differently than I had imagined. The whole section of the wall disappeared, but problem was that while the staff sucked in the stone around the creature, the alutnarat remained unaffected.
“Shit, shit, shit!” I cursed and began rapidly backing away. The alutnarat was confused for a moment when the stone disappeared under its body, but it recovered quickly and began advancing on me. In my final desperation, I thrust the staff forward when it lunged for me. Even if the magic device didn’t work on the creature, I could hopefully hold him back long enough to reach the chamber where Devi’lynn was.
The alutnarat met my extended staff with its spikes, and a terribly loud boom shook my newly made tunnel. I closed my eyes reflexively, and only barely managed to keep my hold on the staff. When I opened my eyes again, the alutnarat was gone, but so was the corridor that I had dug. A crack had been formed on the glass orb, and from the gap dirt and crushed stone were bursting forth rapidly, filling up the passage. I had to keep a strong grip on the staff, but considering the force with which the dirt exited the orb, it wasn’t too bad. I couldn’t feel any relief though, because I had to continuously back off to give space for the debris that was flowing out.
“Randel?” Devi’lynn asked from the room, no doubt alerted by the noise.
“Busy!” I shouted back. I was doing my utmost to guide the stream of dirt in a way that it filled up the passage entirely. It wasn’t perfect, but I needed to save as much space as I could, because I would have two options when I reached the chamber. Either I would continue backing off and retreat downstairs, or I could head to the other side of the room, walling myself in with the large chest containing the rest of the glass orbs. I was leaning towards the latter option, though it was risky. Even if some of the debris had gotten into the throne room when the orb got damaged, there might have been enough dirt contained in the magical device to completely bury me in the chamber. After all, there had been already something inside the orb even before I started digging.
I began panting as I neared the chamber. My arms were getting tired and I was covered in sweat. The dust caused by this avalanche of dirt clung to my skin and it was difficult to breathe. Finally, I had made up my mind to go for the chest, though the others didn’t have to be with me if things went awry.
“Devi’lynn, get Nosy and go down!”
“What are you doing?!” Devi’lynn shouted from the top of the stairs as I arrived to the chamber.
“Stay back, please,” was all I said. I planned to spray as much dirt as I could through the doorway, in order to save more space.
Devi’lynn didn’t protest, but she looked at me with eyes full of worry when she realized I wasn’t about to escape downstairs. By contrast, Nosy wasn’t anxious at all, watching me with one eye from the arms of the Sylven girl. He wasn’t really moved by my sacrifice and was probably just annoyed by the ruckus I was making. Despite everything, it made me smile.
Soon I had one side of the room already filled up, along with the doorway. I was standing on the slope that I had created in order to get as much debris as I could away from the chest. My arms were shaking from the strain and I cursed myself for the thousandth time for not working out regularly. I already had fatigue fever from all that swimming on the previous day, and now it would just become worse.
When the debris finally ran out I was so relieved that I dropped the staff and flopped down to the uneven ground. More than half of the room was filled in an angle, the air heavy with dust that had nowhere to go. I coughed a little and looked back at the chest, massaging my sore arms in the meantime. The original floor couldn’t be seen – not even in that end of the room – but the lid of the chest was high enough to remain unburied. Now I just had to try to fix a new orb into the staff before I ran out of oxygen.
But first, I needed a five-minute nap to rest my arms.
At this point I wasn’t really in danger, so I wasn’t worried. Worst case scenario, I would exercise my second Ability – Animal Conduit – to teleport my dagger to Nosy, and after the cooldown I would follow it. But since I wasn’t sure whether I could bring extra magic orbs with myself, I preferred not to try it. It was still a bit of a mystery what I could bring with myself while teleporting. My clothes and weapons were alright, and so were smaller objects that I held in my hand. But I had no idea whether I could bring with me things that I couldn’t get a good grip on, such as perfectly round orbs or large chests. I could have tested it right there and then, of course, but I decided to try and see if I can replace the orb first.
It was challenging for me to figure out the mechanism – I wasn’t exactly a genius when it came to engineering – but in the end it turned out to be simpler than I had thought. Before I reactivated the staff I sent Soul Eater to Nosy just to let Devi’lynn know that I was alright. I should have done this earlier, but I forgot. I hoped that Devi’lynn hadn’t abandoned me in the meantime.
I began to dig – now with practiced ease – and cleared all the rubble in the doorway pretty fast. Just a few seconds after the cooldown on my Ability wore off, I managed to break through. For some reason Devi’lynn had been leaning against the wall next to the doorway. I could see that she was surprised when the rubble on her left had disappeared, but I was also taken off guard by her closeness. I tried to turn off the staff and she tried to jump away, but both of us were a bit too slow. Part of the staff’s magical aura caught her left arm, and the sleeve of her shirt and part of my cloak disappeared in an instant.
For a few second, we were just staring each other in silence. Woah, this staff cannot suck in living things! That explained why it didn’t work on the alutnarat. I wondered if it would work on our collar. Of course at the moment it wasn’t a good idea to try out, because we needed to rely heavily on our Abilities. But later on… We could be free with this! As I considered the consequences of this revelation, a smile crept to my face. Then my smile turned into a wince when Devi’lynn hit me in the shoulder.
“You didn’t tell me what you were doing!”
“Yeah, well… I… n-no time?” I stammered. I tried to think of something to say, but she was right. In my defense, it would have been quite difficult to manage the staff and think of the proper words in her language at the same time. Devi’lynn wasn’t satisfied however, and she punched me in the arm again.
“I was worried, you — and — !”
Well, at least she wasn’t mad at me because of her shirt. At first I thought that would be the case, but-
“And take that for my clothes!” she hit me on the top of my head this time.
“Oww, alright, alright, I’m sorry! Sorry!”
But seriously, what had happened? Devi’lynn was so… distant towards us Humans when Teva’ryn was around, but not exactly two days had passed and she already had more than one argument with me. And now things escalated into her letting out her frustration by punching me, I grumbled internally. To be honest, I was a bit impressed how differently she was behaving. I didn’t mind if the two Sylven were polite and spoke formally around us – if anything, it only helped me learn their language faster – but it was nice to see that they could be laid-back too. Well, at least one of the two could be.
I ushered Nosy out of the way and went back to the room with the rest of the glass orbs. I explained Devi’lynn what had happened – well, I couldn’t describe the throne room, but speaking about lots and lots of spiders was enough – and then I decided to start a new tunnel, but in completely the opposite direction. This time Devi’lynn followed me step by step, her rapier drawn and ready for combat. I had no plans to fight if we found any other nest of spiders, but I didn’t want to discourage her so I said nothing.
I hadn’t been digging for more than a few minutes when the front of my tunnel collapsed once again, revealing an open space right in front of us. I jumped back so fast that I almost bowled Devi’lynn over. I didn’t dare to avert my gaze from the gap in the stone. This time there wasn’t any light coming from the other side, which was a good sign. As far as I could tell, it looked like a normal corridor that the Thardos usually made, only a bit narrower.
While we were eyeing the hole, Nosy got impatient and decided to go and explore. He slipped forward nimbly between my legs and disappeared on the other side in a flash. I quickly hurried to make the hole wider to be able to follow. I wasn’t really worried about Nosy wandering off too far – he didn’t have any light source to see by – but I didn’t want him to face any alutnarat alone. I wasn’t sure if he could take on those creatures alone.
As it turned out, I was wrong about the light source. The corridor that we have found had a gentle curve so I couldn’t see far, but from one direction a faint reddish light could be seen. I quickly headed in that direction, but to my disappointment it wasn’t the light of the setting sun. It was another blood red barrier. Nosy was already poking it with one paw, looking really fascinated. I had deprived him last time from exploring the barrier, so now he made up for the missed opportunity. He loved these shiny transparent things: back in the forest it had taken him a long time to get bored with my collar’s projections. Not bothering to try to call him to me, I just scooped him up when I passed the barrier.
The corridor we were on seemed to be going upwards while constantly curving to the right. It felt as if the Thardos wanted to build winding stairs, but were too lazy so they left out the ‘stairs’ part. They also didn’t bother to widen the tunnel more than it was necessary. The ceiling was so low that we had to bend forward a bit, and the corridor was awfully narrow as well. It was so uncomfortable to proceed like that, that I briefly wondered whether it would be better to just climb on all fours. Or if it would be rude to give Devi’lynn my dagger and tell her to go ahead and I would follow her by teleporting…
Several excruciating minutes had passed, filled with the sound of our soft footsteps and heavy breathing. I was just about to turn on the staff and begin widening the tunnel – trading faster travel for a more comfortable one – when we finally arrived to a chamber. With a relieved sigh I slumped down, and Devi’lynn eagerly rushed past me to explore. I didn’t care too much about the wooden furniture around us. My eyes were glued to the trapdoor in the opposite corner. We had to be quite close to the surface, and it looked really promising.
I sighed in relief. How likely had it been that we would find an other tunnel? Well, very likely considering that we were in the vicinity of the underground village. Most of the tunnels were probably convening there. But how likely had it been that the one we found would lead us to the surface?
“Ugh, heavy,” Devi’lynn said after she spotted the trapdoor and tried to lift it. She took the Super Tunnel Creator from me and even managed to turn it on by herself. She wasted no time to destroy a whole section of ceiling along with the trapdoor. So much for respecting the belongings of the Thardos. Maybe I was corrupting her.
More importantly, sweet-sweet sunlight poured down from the gap Devi’lynn had made. There was a short ladder in the corner, but Devi’lynn didn’t bother setting it up. She quickly pushed a table under the hole and stood up. She was just high enough like that to be able to poke her head out. There was enough space on the table so I followed her and peeked out.
“Freedom!” Devi’lynn said and followed it up with a laugh, her beautiful voice conveying her relief better than any words could.
We were back in the forest. Tall trees everywhere, some of them even having those large blue fruits that I knew was an edible kind. The ground had a gentle slope, so my guess was that we were higher up than the river. Downwards, the trees were quite close to each other so I couldn’t see far enough, but in the other direction the forest thinned out a bit and I could see farther. Something about that was nagging me, but I couldn’t quite place it why. It was certainly unusual in this part of the forest, where plants were growing so close to each other that it could almost be called jungle.
“And it seems like we still have a few hours of daytime!” Devi’lynn said enthusiastically as she began to climb out, “Let’s hurry and find the river! I’m really thirs-”
“Devi, stop!” I whispered urgently and reached up to grab her shoulders and pull her back. This resulted in both of us overbalancing and falling off the table.
“What are you doing?! You-” I hurriedly covered her mouth with one hand so she would stop shouting. It might not have been the best choice hygienically so I quickly removed my hand and looked at her apologetically.
“Sorry. But be quiet, please.”
As I reached for the menus of my collar, my hand was slightly shaking with the sudden adrenaline and maybe also with a little fear. I opened up the Map and tried to make out what I was seeing. Despite being such an advanced technology, the collar didn’t support the mapping of underground tunnels. I knew this much, because I had already tried this even before meeting the Thardos. It was as if a satellite was always tracking me, but if I went underground it couldn’t update my map. My suspicion was on point: according to the Map, in the direction where I saw the trees thinning, there was a huge clearing.
The same one where we had fought our battle with the octopus giants.