The Darkened Room, Part 2
They raced down the dark corridor, Rika and Sean leading the way. Syd and Simon flanked Isa as she used the limitless power of the Foinse-stone to deter their pursuers. They pressed onward, moving forward to prevent themselves from being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the mine guards. At a crossroads, Rika spared a glance behind. Simon was dropping back to Trentor, who was bringing up the rear.
“How are you doing, old man?” He asked.
“Not as old as you are!” Trentor said. He was clenching his teeth.
“I am not the one hobbling behind everyone else,” Simon paused, and gave his friend a considering look. “Foot?”
Trentor shrugged. “Someone’s got to bring up the rear.”
Ahead of them, Syd frowned. “How much further?” she asked Sean.
“Not much, we are almost through.”
She looked back at Trentor, who was panting more heavily. “Don’t… worry about… me.”
“Stay with him,” she said to Simon. “It would be a shame if we had to break out with only five of us.”
“Your… consideration… is overwhelming,” panted Trentor.
As they rounded a corner, Sean threw out his hand and stopped suddenly. “Dim the light!” When Rika obeyed, he lowered his arm and gestured for her to look around the corner. Nerves tingling, she slowly stuck her head around it, and swore as she saw what was on the other side.
“What is it?” Isa asked, whispering as she caught up to them.
“A road block,” Rika said. “Get Syd!”
Isa beckoned Syd forward, and the tall woman was there in an instant. “What?”
“The way is blocked. There’s a cadre of Choisant and a big net.” She had recognized the Choisant from the sigil sewn onto their black cloaks, a crystal set in the center of a spider’s web.
“Can you blast through them?” Syd asked Isa.
“The soldiers, definitely. If the net is anchored at all firmly…”
“It is,” Rika interrupted. “Pegs in the rock on either side of the corridor on both the top and bottom.”
“The runes we are using generate a blast wave of Fòrsa, but while it is good for hurling people and doors about, it would pass right through the net,” she shrugged, “think of it like wind. There are too many holes, so the force would be too spread out.”
Syd nodded, understanding. She looked at Sean as Trentor and Simon caught up to them. “Is there another way?”
Sean hesitated, thinking. “Do you have any rope?”
“Yes,” Rika and Isa both answered.
“We each have a coil of fifty feet of climbing rope,” Rika said. “Is that enough?”
“It’ll have to do.”
Simon frowned. “You are not thinking of…” he paused when he saw his brother’s grin and sighed. “Straight out of the top, then?”
“Straight out, indeed.”
“What?” Syd demanded.”
“You explain on the way,” Sean said, nodding at Simon. “The rest of you, follow me!” and he dashed off back down the passageway, before darting down a side tunnel that they had previously blown by.
“Go,” Syd said, and the group followed on his heels. “Where are we going?” She asked Simon again as they rounded the corner and caught up to Sean.
“They have probably blocked off all the entrances by now, if that net was any indication,” Simon said, by way of reply.
“So there is only one exit left.”
“Simon,” Syd warned, “out with it.”
“Well, the Overseer’s office has windows, and a lovely view of the mountains…”
“So that’s why we need the rope,” Rika said, as she paced herself just in front of them.
“What is going on?” said Trentor, limping gamely after them.
“We are going out the windows and down the cliff face,” Simon said.
“It will be fun!” Isa said.
“Sure, if you are crazy. Isa, I think you have been close to too many explosions,” Trentor said. Isa turned and winked at him and then went back to running. Trentor sighed, “At least the view will be nice.”
This set of corridors was different from the one they had been fleeing down before: brighter lit, and with smoother sides. These were clearly the more used areas of the mine, and Rika thought she smelt food cooking. Simon had said that there were communal rest areas throughout the mine. That meant people, but these tunnels were empty. “Where are all the workers?” Rika asked as they ran on.
“Protocol for an intrusion is for the guards to defend the entrances, while the workers are sequestered in the dining hall,” Sean said, in between breaths.
“Couldn’t they help, too?” Isa asked.
“Relations between the workers and the Overseer are at an all-time low. They would as happily help us as help him.”
“After all, you are here,” Rika said.
“He is a special case,” Simon said from behind them. “The mine is a convenient sideline for those in my family’s line of business.”
“How little you know, little brother. Things are different now. Relations are… strained.”
“Much to the family’s benefit, I assume.”
“Only because we choose to see it that way. Disruptions are bad for business, but they do bring other opportunities.”
Simon opened his mouth to question his brother further, but Syd stepped up between them. “Talk later. Run now.”
They ran on. The corridors were now brightly lit, well-traveled paths. Signposts pointed the way to a bar, a tea shop, and to the dining hall. It was a veritable deserted city under the mountains of Crystalis. Their footsteps echoed in the stillness up and down the smooth-worn halls, and Rika could feel hairs rise on the back of her neck. “Too quiet,” she heard Isa mutter under her breath. “I do not like it.”
Rika winked at her. “Do you ever like quiet?”
Isa stuck her tongue out at her. “This is different, it’s…” she searched for a word, “oppressive.”
“I know,” Rika said, becoming serious again. “I feel it too.”
“We all feel it,” Simon said. “Keep your eyes and ears open.”
The air felt thicker, heavier, and the sounds of their footsteps vanished into the corridors like pebbles into a still pond. Looking at her arm, Rika could see all of her hairs were standing straight up, and Isa’s thick, black hair was actually lifting up her headscarf as strands wriggled free from her braids. “Isa,” she called, “your hair!”
Isa checked her own arms, “Alos fend.”
“What?” Syd demanded.
Isa was looking around at all of them now, eyes wide. “Fòrsa,” she said. “This corridor is filled with it. It’s why it feels so… static-y.”
“Is it a trap?”
Isa looked at Rika, who shrugged in response. “There is probably enough energy in the air to cook us all, if it discharged.”
“Oh, excellent,” Trentor said, catching up as the group paused to take stock. “I love it when it is good news.”
“In a way, it is,” Rika said. “We are still alive, after all. A trap would have triggered by now. This is…something else.”
“We do not have time for this,” Sean said from further up the corridor. “The Overseer’s chambers are right around the corner. We must go, now!”
“Whatever is happening,” Syd said, “It has not harmed us yet. Let us go before whoever holds this power changes their mind.”
Or finishes whatever they need all this energy for, Rika thought to herself as they rounded the corner. It was not comforting to think about. Whatever was drawing all this energy, she could not imagine it being used for a beneficial purpose. Not in a place where those in charge were actively experimenting with forbidden and dangerous techniques.
The doors to the Overseer’s quarters were indeed nearby, at the end of an ornate, brightly lit, stone hallway. The corridor they had come from opened up near the end of it, leaving the entrance to the Overseer’s chambers at the end of a small cul-de-sac, marked by a garish set of oaken doors. They were covered in gilt with ornate bronze handles, and they were also… vibrating? Rika peered closely at them, trying to figure out why they seemed to be shaking faintly in their frames.
“It appears the Overseer is not given to understatement,” Trentor said, as the group paused to survey the entranceway.
Simon turned to his brother, “do you think he is inside?”
“Only one way to find out,” Sean reached for the bronze door handle.
“Wait!” Rika hissed.
Sean paused, looking back at her. “What?”
“Do not touch it, something is wrong.”
“I feel it, too,” Isa said.
“Everyone back up,” Syd commanded, and the group slowly backed away from the door and into the side corridor from which they had entered. “Now,” she said once they were all back in the side corridor, “What is going on?”
“I think the door is rigged, somehow,” Rika said.
“I agree,” said Isa, “The doors are charged with energy. You can see them shaking.”
“Is this related to the Fòrsic buildup we have been sensing?”
Isa and Rika both shrugged. “Could be,” Rika said.
“We would have to trigger it to be certain,” Isa added.
“Can you open the door without triggering it?”
“Maybe, but It would be easier to trigger it,” Rika said. “If we bleed off the Fòrsic energy, then we can just open the door.”
Syd stared at them both, thinking, before nodding decisively. “Do it.”
Rika and Isa exchanged a quick grin. “On it!”
“And hurry,” said Sean. “We cannot wait here forever.”
Rika waved her hand airily at him, but Isa was already occupied with planning their approach. She peered out around the corner, her senses searching for any reaction and her body prepared to jerk to safety in an instant. She stared intently at the door for several moments, and then pulled her head back. Rika was right behind her.
“Yes, it’s very faint, but you can feel the tension.”
“What do you think?”
“What’s that cliché, tension you can cut with a knife? I say we cut it -- with a rod,” Isa waggled the Foinse-rod at Rika.
“Blowing things up is your answer for everything.”
Isa stuck her tongue out. “A trapped door is not a trap if there is no door.”
“The door does not need to be the focus. It could be triggered if something crosses the frame, or if the door opens. In the first case, we die even if we blew the doors down, and in the second, blowing down the doors kills us anyway.”
“I know that,” Isa said, “but it should not matter if we use enough Fòrsa. A large enough blast will disrupt any triggering mechanisms. Maybe.”
“It is inelegant.”
Rika thought for a moment. “Fine,” she made a calming gesture as Isa clapped her hands in excitement. “Wait, before you run off and do something stupid. I am still worried about the discharge frying us where we stand. What if we reflected it before it reached us?”
“Reflected, how?” Isa said, and then answered her own question. “Oh, I see. That is crazy!” She paused. “Let’s do it!”
Five anxious minutes later, Rika watched as Isa braced herself in the center of the main corridor, with Rika’s crystal studded buckler held at chest height. Three of the five crystals embedded in the shield’s surface were glowing, a triangle of light signifying that the shield would reflect Fòrsic energies. The Foinse-stone was strapped to the back of the shield, the paint of its blast wave creating runes scrapped off and replaced with a new set, mirroring the ones on the shield and increasing its effectiveness. At least, theoretically.
While Rika had been preparing the shield, Isa had been using up the rest of their meager supply of paint on the main corridor, laying down a series of runes to direct Fòrsic energies to a single point. After poking weapons, and then themselves, out into the hallway, they had ascertained that whatever the energy build up was, it was not reactive to them being in the corridor. Still, they had moved the rest of the group even further down the side passageway, except for Simon.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” He asked, as Isa gave them a nod to say that she was set.
Rika shrugged. “Yes, I think so. It is the best way to protect the rest of us, and the energy the Foinse-stone emits is immense. That shield could reflect an Ater-Volantis lift crystal... I think.”
“There’s only one way to know for sure. Can you hit the door from here?”
Simon looked into the corridor, “It will not pose a problem.” He hefted a fist-sized stone and hurled it the door before diving back into the side corridor. The rock hit the door to the Overseer’s chamber with a resounding thunk. Nothing happened. Simon and Rika looked at each other, and then out at Isa.
Isa looked back at them. “Well, that was anti-climactic,” she said, relaxing. “Throw…” but whatever else she was about to say was cut off as a titanic beam of Fòrsic energy erupted from the door and slammed into her small, metal buckler.
“Isa!” Rika screamed as the wind from the backdraft slammed into her and Simon in the wall of the side corridor. The breath rushed out of her in a whoosh and she blinked rapidly, trying to regain her sight. Her ears rang with a high-pitched buzzing sound, and she felt blood trickling out of her nose.
“What… was… that…” wheezed Simon next to her.
“I don’t know,” she tried to snap back, but heard only a croak emerge. “ISA!”
Syd and Trentor were at their side moments later. Trentor checked them both carefully for wounds. “Are you all right? What happened?” Syd asked hurriedly.
“I’m fine…I…don’t…Isa!” Rika stammered out. Trentor pulled her to her feet and slapped a hand hard on the small of her back. “Thanks,” she said, surprised to be able to take a breath.
“An old combat trick,” Trentor said, as he turned to do the same to Simon. “But anything for our theorist.”
“Oh my,” Syd said. She stood in the main corridor, her hand covering her mouth.
Rika rushed out into the corridor. The stones down the middle of it had been charred black in a single, straight line, about as wide as Rika was tall. The char narrowed to a point where Isa had been standing. Rika looked around frantically. Further down the corridor, there was a limp, black-haired body, limbs and braids spread akimbo. “Isa!” Rika cried as she rushed to her friend’s side. She was still holding the blackened shield, but as Rika touched it, it crumbled into dust, the Foinse-stone clinking to the floor.
Isa was barely breathing, but her eyes fluttered open as Rika cradled her head. “Ow,” she said, so softly that Rika had to bend her head to hear her.
“It should have been me out there,” Rika said.
“I’m… braver… and dumber… than you. Made… sense.”
“Hush,” Rika looked up back down the corridor. “Alos guide us,” she breathed. The door to Overseer’s quarters was simply gone. The ragged hole where it had been showed that the reflected energies had actually enlarged the doorway. The blast had travelled straight through the chambers and out the windows on the other side. Daylight, real daylight, was streaming through.
“Did… I do… good?”
“You did fine, love,” Rika checked her friend over carefully. “Quit the dramatic talk though, you’re not dying.”
“I… know,” Isa said sitting up. “I just like talking like that.”
Rika laughed in relief, and wiped her tears away. Life without Isa was not something she wanted to think about. “Let’s get you up,” she said, and helped Isa struggle to her feet.
Isa let out a gasp as Rika pulled her up and clutched her shoulder.
“What is wrong?”
“I think it’s broken,” Isa took a step, and then switched to clutching her side. “My ribs, too.”
“Everything all right?” Syd called from where she stood further down the corridor.
“Isa is banged up, but we are all right,” Rika called back as she slipped her arm underneath Isa’s and helped her limp toward the rest of the group.
“We need to go, now!” Sean said, glancing around the hallways uneasily. “Someone else will have heard us.”
“Everyone will have heard us,” Trentor said. “That was the loudest noise I have ever heard in my entire life. Living inside of a thunderclap would be quieter than that noise.”
“All according to plan,” wheezed Isa as she and Rika reached the group.
“Oh, really?” Trentor arched a bushy eyebrow. “You meant to blow yourself up?”
“Well, no, but we broke through the door, triggered the trap, and no one died, so…”
“We can discuss this later,” said Syd. “It is time to leave.”
The group hurried down the corridor, Rika supporting Isa’s limping, hunched-over form. The Overseer’s quarters were as ornate and ostentatious as the doors had been, and they were almost as destroyed. “I guess we will not trip on anything on the way out,” Trentor said, gesturing at the swath of destruction that led out to the broken windows.
“You are welcome,” Isa said.
“I cannot wait to get out of here,” Rika said, “This place gives me the creeps. It feels like a storm is coming.”
“A storm IS coming,” came a voice, low, throaty, and unmistakably feminine. The group whirled toward the sound. The speaker was a tall, dark-haired woman, dressed in black and crimson robes emblazoned with the spider-web of the Choisant. Rika fought an urge to gasp. The woman was holding a severed head as casually as if it were a handbag.
“Who are you?” demanded Syd.
“The new Overseer, of course. The old one was ineffectual. He was… terminated from his position,” She hefted the head, and light flashed off of the crystals protruding from the eye sockets.
“Crystals in the eyes,” Rika said, “Careful!”
“I thought you said blood magic does not work,” Trentor said.
“Blood magic did not work, but the world is changing,” the woman said. “The age of Fòrsa is ending. Allow me to demonstrate,” she lifted the head, and the crystals embedded in its eyes began to glow a sickly green color. The mouth opened, and the hair on the back of Rika’s neck began to tingle as energy gathered. “I have enjoyed watching you scurry about my mines, but it is time for you to leave now – and you may even serve a higher purpose once dar-Alos has gathered your souls.”
“No!” Isa cried as the beam building in the head exploded outwards. Dragging Rika with her, she threw herself in front of the group, raising the Foinse-rod still clutched in her injured arm. Thunder pealed, deafening in the enclosed space, and everyone was thrown to the ground. The beam, however, was reflected back. With another ear-shattering bang, the head burst. The impact threw the newcomer through the wooden partition behind her.
“What in dar-Alos’s name is going on now?” asked Trentor.
“I have no idea,” Rika said. “Help me get Isa up, and let us get out of here as fast as possible.”
Isa was out cold, a limp weight pinning Rika to the floor. Rika had tried her best to catch her friend with her body, but now she was having trouble getting out from under her. “I had no idea you were this heavy,” Rika muttered, as Trentor and Simon hauled the two women to their feet.
Isa’s eyes fluttered open briefly. “How rude,” she said, and then she was limp again, although her hands still clutched the pristine Foinse-rod. Rika queasily noted that the spiraling scars on her arms, the legacy of the previous summer’s incident with the bandits, were glowing faintly. That cannot be good, she thought. However, there was no time to consider it further. Syd and Sean had also picked themselves off the floor, and were busily tying their ropes around a central pillar. “We need to leave,” Syd said. “I want to be on the ground before they come to investigate.”
“There is no way Isa will make it down by herself,” Rika said, looking out over the drop. The late Overseer’s quarters opened up onto a sheer cliff of at least forty vertical feet, overlooking the Crystalis. This would be a challenging climb, even under normal circumstances.
“I will carry her,” Simon said. “There is enough rope left over to tie her to my back.”
“All right,” Trentor said. “Let’s go. Preferably before any more terrible things happen.”
Chapter 20 can be found here.