~ 3 ~
Down a narrow stair that bored deep into the bedrock under Mount Eredren, they went like two jingling shadows. The stair spat them out into a tunnel choked with broken rock. Stalagmites and stalactites had merged into columns that had collapsed creating an obstacle course. One Nulthir had traversed too many times in the six months since Thrassen had left on some assignment and saddled him with the job of Guard Captain. Thankfully the job was only temporary. Thrassen would return and then Nulthir would go back to being Thrassen’s second–a job he was much more qualified to do.
Navigating the debris took time but it would allow them to come at the center of all the drama from an oblique angle. One he hoped would provide some clue as to what had started the trouble and how to defuse it. He hoped they had that time to spare as he vaulted over one pile of rubble and slid down another.
All about them lumir crystals embedded in the walls and ceiling winked at them. They threw just enough light to pick out the worst obstacles but not nearly enough to reach into every crack and crevice. The tunnel wound on for half a mile but the debris lessened and then tapered off completely as Nulthir ducked under two columns that braced each other. The other side was clear but strangely quiet.
They were close to the main cavern where the Indentured tended to hold their demonstrations. Why didn’t he hear shouts? He should but he didn’t. All he heard was the whisper of Algathar’s boots.
“What is it?”
Algathar’s question echoed in the quiet. It should have been swallowed by noise.
Nulthir shook his head and motioned for silence. He moved to the wall and crept the rest of the way to his goal. Ten feet from the last turning he finally heard something. It was definitely a voice but he couldn’t make out the words. Why wasn’t the spokesman shouting?
Every other demonstration had featured that. Why not this one? He crossed the remaining distance towards a pastel glow. Light shafted down from the cluster of man-sized lumir crystals set in the cavern’s concave ceiling revealing an enormous cavern full of people.
At least that was right but everything else about this was wrong, very wrong. People filled the space to capacity. Squeezed against one wall with a contingent of guards who were supposed to be guarding them were the chain gangs who worked the mines. Soot covered and quiet, they stood arms at their sides, chains dangling from wrists and ankle, waiting. Everyone was waiting.
Then it struck him what was wrong, other than the quiet–no women and no children were present. Everybody packing this chamber was male and none of them were trying to ascend the Grand Staircase. So named for its sheer size and the loving attention the ancient stone-mages who had crafted this stronghold out of the innards of Mount Eredren, the Grand Stair connected all the inhabited levels in style. It took six guards with spears crossed to keep the throng back–usually except not today.
No one had the slightest interest in the Grand Stair or in harassing the lucky few indentured souls who traversed it for work everyday. That lack of attention didn’t extend to his men thankfully. They held their post as if expecting a mob to rush them at any moment. Nulthir approved of that.
No one had broken anything either. The Low Market generally did a brisk business here at the foot of the Grand Stair. All the tables and their wares stood in their place but no one gave them a glance. Men lined the aisles between the stalls and they just stood there. Grim faced and determined, they waited for either something to happen or one of their number to make a move.
Their attention wasn’t fixed on any one person or place giving no hint of what direction he should look in to find the catalyst. There had to be a catalyst. Nulthir refused to believe that several hundred men had showed up to stand around for no purpose. None of this made any sense. He had no idea what to order his men to do. Nothing like this had ever happened in the ten years he had been a guard.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and heard the flap of wings seconds before he spotted a bobby shadow. From its fingers dangled a cord on which hung a family relic more dear to Nulthir than resolving the pressing mystery of the silent demonstration. The shadow flapped its wings and took flight heading away from the main cavern back the way he had come.
Of course Nulthir knew what had his knife sheathe in its hands. A benign creature spawned in a pool of stagnant magic, one he had found as a boy and kept. Though he’d never been able to figure out why he had kept the thing. He wasn’t a pet person but two decades later here he was chasing the thing.
Thing it was too. It had aspects of a number of different creatures–bat wings, a set of oversized eye teeth, finger-like digits with opposable thumbs, a prehensile tail, a scaly pate reminiscent of a vulture, feather tufted ears and a mottled pelt–all in all it was a bizarre combo of characteristics. Yet it worked strangely enough. That might have more to do with the fact that the creature was only about two feet in height and weighed about twenty pounds. Thing could run on all fours, swim and fly for short distances. Though it wouldn’t get far trailing his dual sheath. The curved blades in there were not light despite the fact that they topped out at a half foot in length each.
“Damn you Thing. You’re aren’t supposed to leave my room.”
That had been the whole point of having a room of his own. Living in the barracks would have been far cheaper than his current living arrangement though not safer for a mis-formed creature who depended on him.
More flapping harkened him to the fact that Amal–short for Amalgamation–Thing’s mate, had joined in the mischief. He, she, it–he’d never quite figured out which sex either of them belonged to though that didn’t mattered since they had produced viable offspring. Amal grasped the belt from which the sheathe dangled. With her added help, the entire bundle rose higher.
He felt it then as he rushed down another tunnel following his creatures–that twisting in guts that alerted him to magic gone horribly awry somewhere ahead. Instead of stumbling to a stop as any other sensible person would have done, he rushed forwards. Whatever foul bit of magery lay at the end of this tunnel was the catalyst. It was the what those men waited for and that meant it needed to be stopped.
Putting on a burst of speed, he rushed headlong down the tunnel. There was a rightness in every step that had been missing from his life of late. His vision sharpened. The air grew fetid and choked with fumes and magic. Along his skin a slow burn started as the ambient magical field ignited the runes tattooed on his skin. He welcomed that sensation; it meant that the spells writ upon his person were activating and applying multipliers to his various strengths and skills.
One thought beat in his brain in time with his footfalls. This is what he was born to do.
MORE OF NULTHIR
Read the intro.