The Trapped Cave
“Ow,” Someone said, and coughed. Their voice sounded muffled. It was too dark for Rika to see who it was, but she thought it was Eithne.
She coughed herself, and spat, trying to clear her mouth of caked on dust. She could feel it all over her body, and her eyes stung. “Please don’t spit on me,” Isa said from underneath her. “I’ve already had a mountain fall on my head.”
“Isa! Sorry. Are you alright?” Rika raised her voice, “Is everyone alright?”
“I am fine,” said Eithne. Rika thought it was to her right. “But I can’t move. Roshan is on top of me, and I think he’s unconscious,” her voice had a panicky edge to it.
Rika took a deep breath and coughed again. Stay calm, she told herself, Panic kills, patience saves. Aloud, she asked, “Is he breathing, can you feel a heartbeat?”
There was a pause, “Yes, and his pulse is strong” Eithne sounded relieved, but the edge was still there. “I think he got hit by a rock though, the back of his head is sticky and wet.”
“Head wounds bleed a lot,” Isa said in a calm, matter of fact tone. “It probably feels worse than it is. “Can you wake him up?”
“Roshan, Roshan, come on now, you dear man, wake up!” Eithne pleaded.
She tried again, it sounded like she was crying.
There came another sound, suspiciously like a wet kiss, and then Roshan spoke, “What… what happened?” His voice slurred, but at least he was awake.
She heaved a sigh of relief. “Welcome back. Do you remember anything?”
“Head… hurts,” he seemed to be trying to pull his focus together. “Did… the mountain collapse?”
“Feels like it,” Isa said.
“Here, move over,” Eithne said. There was a sound of sifting rubble. Someone, Roshan, Rika assumed, started retching.
“Head wounds can make you nauseous,” Isa said. “I should know, I have had a few in my day.”
“That explains a lot,” Rika said, and Isa laughed weakly.
“Come put your head in my lap,” Eithne said, and there was more shuffling noises, and then quiet.
After a moment, Rika asked, “anyone have a light?”
“You know, I think I do,” Isa said. A warm copper glow filled the room.
“Dar-Alos be praised,” Eithne breathed, “Isa, look at your arms!”
Her arms were spectacular. What before had been a dim glow was now a shining beacon of light. The traceries of scars were now veins of copper. They encircled her arms like fine filigree, but whereas before they had seemed an imposition on Isa’s skin, now they were vibrant. They seemed a part of her, somehow. “Oh Isa,” Rika said. “I am so sorry. I guess all this was for naught,” she gestured around the room, feeling bitter. With the light from Isa’s arms, they could see the debris around them. A large stone, wider than Rika was tall, leaned over them. It had gotten trapped on similar column of stone, and sheltered them from the worst. That stone was the totality of what they could see. Rock and rubble filled every corner in around them, aside from their pocket. They were trapped.
“I feel better. Like a weight has been lifted from my chest,” in the light cast by Isa’s arms, Rika could see her shrug. “My arms feel different, too. They don’t hurt, and I can… feel the Fòrsa,” she flexed her arms. The light pulsed in rhythm to her movements. “I think with some work, I could even control it!”
Control it?” Rika was skeptical. “Fòrsic energy is inherent to the crystals. There’s not wisps of free energy floating around.”
“There might be, how would we know? All we know is that the crystals are failing,” she shrugged again. “Maybe the rules are changing.”
Eithne added, “the histories on Fòrsic Energy are undecided. The consensus is that the energy has to come from somewhere, and most researchers lean towards the theory that the Fòrsa comes from the Earth, and is gathered slowly over time. That would imply some sort of free energy out in the world.
“See!” Isa pointed at her arms, “We use runes and glyphs, why not my body?”
“Wouldn’t that be blood magic?” Rika said.
Isa thought for a moment. “No,” she said, her tone firm . “The Fòrsa used by that horrible Choisant woman felt so… wrong. This feels different.”
Rika opened her mouth to interrogate her further, but Eithne interrupted them. “Let’s assume for now that whatever Roshan did with the Foinse-rod worked. Somewhat. But we have bigger problems right now.”
“You are right,” Rika looked around the cramped space they were trapped in. “I wonder where the Foinse-rod is. For that matter, where is the Don? Not under all that rubble, I hope.”
“Last I saw him, he was near the entrance,” Eithne said. “Maybe he got out! He could send someone to rescue us!”
“If he thinks we are still alive,” Isa said in a somber tone.
That quieted all three of them. Finally, Rika spoke up. “We can’t wait here for rescue. For one, we don’t know if it is coming. For two, we can’t wait long, anyway.”
“Why not?” Isa asked.
“No food, no water,” Eithne’s expression was grim. “Either we get out of here quickly, or not at all.”
There was silence again. The three of them sat, thinking, while Roshan lay with his head in Eithne’s lap. Ideas and plans whirred through Rika’s thoughts, each considered and then discarded in turn. No matter how many times she took a mental inventory of their supplies, she came up with the same results. They didn’t even have any blank crystals on them. No matter how she looked at it, they were in deep trouble.
“Water,” croaked Roshan.
“We haven’t got any, love,” Eithne stroked his head.
He cleared his throat and tried again. “No, I mean there is water.”
“Really, where?” Rika asked, feeling a bloom of hope.
“There’s a spring off of the middle room, remember? We just have to get to it.”
The bloom faded. “Roshan,” Isa said, “we’re still trapped in this chamber.”
“I have a concussion, I’m not stupid.”
He smiled, “It’s fine, we’re all tense,” Rika could still hear a slurred edge to his words. The rock must have struck quite a blow. Moving with great deliberation, Roshan turned to point to the wall of the cavern behind Eithne, “we can go out through there, hopefully.”
The wall was the only main wall of the cavern not covered by mounds of rubble. Rika opened her mouth to point out that it was, in fact, a wall, when she noticed a dark, shadowy space near the ceiling. Her eyes narrowed, “Do you mean to suggest there’s a secret passage through there?”
“Something like that. It’s actually a ventilation shaft.”
“Wouldn’t that just go straight out to the side of the mountain?” Eithne asked.
“You would think so, but not exactly,” Roshan winced as he tried to sit up further. He gave up and laid his head back down in Eithne’s lap. “There’s shafts over every room, but they’re all interlinked. We can go over the blockage.”
They were all silent for a moment. Isa was the first to speak up. “Are you quite sure that your head injury hasn’t affected you?”
“Because, you dolt,” said Rika, “If the shafts interlink, we can get out of this room entirely! No need to bother with getting water.”
“Oh, huh,” Roshan seemed stunned. “I guess you are right. I wonder why I didn’t think of that.”
“Head injury,” Eithne reminded him.
“Right. Well…” he paused in thought. “I don’t think we will all fit. For certain I won’t.”
Everyone turned and looked at Eithne. At just over five feet tall, she was the smallest of the group. If she didn’t fit, none of them would. “What? You can’t mean to make me go all alone.”
“I’ll go with you!” Isa said.
“No!” Rika was not going to let an injured Isa go wandering around in the mountains, even if it was springtime.
“Well someone needs to go with her,” Isa said. Rika could read her anger at Rika fussing over her, but at the moment she was having trouble caring. “Why don’t you go?”
“I don’t really want to leave the two sick and injured people alone, either,” Rika said after a pause.
“You don’t need to coddle me,” Isa said, with a vehemence that surprised Rika. “Not anymore. Look at me, for Alos’s sake. I’m not just cured, I’m improved!” She threw up her arms. A blast of power shot out of her palms and slammed into the roof. Everyone dove out of the way and the walls around them rumbled, but only a few small stones fell.
“That’s amazing,” Roshan said, “Can you do that again?”
“NO!” Rika and Eithne shouted. He looked surprised, then chagrined.
“Right, sorry. Not the time.”
“I’ll say,” Eithne muttered.
Isa was staring at her arms in amazement. “What in the world?”
Rika put her own arm around her. “I’m sorry I was feeling so over-protective, but I don’t want anything further to happen to you.”
“I know,” Isa rested her head against Rika’s. It felt warm and pleasant, without the too-hot fever heat that had plagued her since Crystalis. “But I do feel different,” she said after a moment. “Stronger. I think I could go with Eithne. She’ll need a source of light, anyway.”
“And we don’t?” Rika asked, half-joking.
Isa shook her head. “If we don’t get someone out, we could all die. We have to try.”
Rika sobered. “You’re right,” she looked at Eithne. “No sense wasting time. We’ll lift you up to the vent, and then try and send Isa after you.”
Eithne nodded. She looked scared, but determined. “Let’s do it.”
Roshan struggled into a sitting position, but if he was trying to stand up, got no further. He leaned back against one of the rock piles filling the chamber. “I’ll stay here, I guess,” he said. He tried to grin, but his expression was bitter.
Eithne smiled at him. “No moving unless absolutely necessary. We’ll try to bring water first, and then we’ll go for help,” she stood up and moved to underneath the ventilation hole.
Rika and Isa stood up and followed her. “We’ll boost you up, and then I’ll help Isa clamber up.”
Eithne nodded. Rika and Isa knelt, and intertwined their cupped hands. “First one foot, and then then other, and then we’ll lift,” Isa said. Eithne stepped her right foot up to rest on their hands, and then the other. She wobbled, and Rika felt her muscles scream, but Eithne stabilized herself by resting a hand on each of their hands. With great care, they lifted her gradually upwards, until she could reach the lip of the hole. She pulled herself up, scrambling, while Rika and Isa continued to lift.
“It’s cramped, but I think Isa will fit,” she called back down.
“Excellent,” Isa said. She looked at Rika, “will you be able to lift me?”
“Not the way we did Eithne. What about my shoulders?”
Isa nodded, “that should work.”
Rika crouched, and Isa straddled her, sitting on her neck and shoulders. Slowly, Rika straightened. Her leg muscles ached and trembled, but she stood up far enough for Isa to reach up and grab the same handhold Eithne had used. Once she had a grip, Rika pushed up on her feet until she was able to crawl into the ventilation shaft.
“We’ll be back soon!” She said, and disappeared into the hole. Slowly, the light from her arms faded as she crawled away. Rika and Roshan were left alone in the crushing darkness.
** ** ** ** ** **
There was a knock on the door.
“Curse it!” Aki whispered, her mind whirring. She looked around the cramped quarters she shared with Maz. Their small, and uncomfortable, bed rolls aside, the room was packed to the brim with Fòrsic equipment and supplies, most of it quite unorthodox. All of it was illegal. They’d had word a house by house search by the Choisant was starting, but she hadn’t expected it so soon. There just wasn’t enough time.
Maz made a calming gesture. “No demands,” she said, and started towards the door. She clutched a lead-weighted baton in her hand. A crystal sparkled on its tip. Aki knew from experience that the runes on crystal would deliver a punishing shock. They had repurposed it, like much of their equipment, from City Watch supplies they had acquired over the course of the last several weeks. Their own stores of crystals stolen from the University were running dangerously low. Aki furrowed her brow in thought. Maz had a point. It wasn’t like the City Watch to not announce their presence. However, she was glad Maz was still taking precautions. The knocking came again, urgent and hurried. Not forceful and demanding, like it would be if it were the Choisant or the City Watch knocking.
Maz creaked open the door a crack. She put her eye to the gap, and then pulled the door open. “What are you doing here?” She demanded, as Jos and a Crystalian Engineer by the name of Padraig, spilled into the room. While Jos was a thin, weedy looking man, Padraig was short and stocky. Like most Crystalians, he had a sheaf of bright red hair, done up in a bun. He was also supposed to be nowhere near this building.
“Darius sent us,” Jos explained, tripping over his words in a hurry. “The Choisant are starting their search. They’re already at the building next door!”
Aki frowned. How did Darius come to be ordering her people around? She would be sure to have a pointed conversation with him, later. If they got out of this current predicament, of course. “How long do we have?”
“The Watch is out in force,” Seamus said. “With reinforcements from Dak. They’re going room by room, so we have time, but not much of it.”
“They are using something to detect Fòrsic equipment,” Jos added. He gestured around the room. “We won’t be able to sneak this stuff by them.”
“Smart of them,” Aki said. “Not unexpected though. Maz and I have a plan.”
“What do you need us to do?”
The next few minutes were filled with frantic motion. Aki and Maz had been midway through their packing process when Jos and Padraig interrupted them. Anything with a trace of Fòrsic crystals attached to it went into a three large wooden chests. The chest themselves were lined with lead, which was known to block Fòrsic emanations. As they filled them, Aki activated a series of small crystals and dropped them on top of the load. Those crystals, along with the lead, would impede the Watch’s detection equipment. Either should have been sufficient. With both together, the Watch should have no idea the chests were there at all. The next step was to haul the chests into the various hidden compartments around their room. The building was smugglers haunt. All the chambers were cramped because they took up much less space than the building floorplans would indicate. The extra space was in the walls, floor, and ceiling, making each section of the tenement a room within a room.
One chest went into the floorboards, the next into the space between the walls. The last chest was the most difficult, but they managed to hoist it up into the attic space. They were all sweating by the end of it. Aki was glad Jos and Seamus were there, even if she still planned to have words with Darius about sending them. It would have been a job with just her and Maz. Aki’s arms hurt even from the limited lifting she had to do.
“What now?” Jos asked, once the chests were squared away. They heard a knocking, shouting, and the stamp of booted feet as the Watch entered the building four stories below them.
“Now we run,” Aki said.
“They don’t look like they are giving up, do they?” Aki said to Maz. The four of them lay on one of the peaked roofs of the warehouse district, heads just cresting the top of the roof. They were well camouflaged, dressed in grays and blacks to blend in with the slate covered rooftops. Ahead of them, up the hill towards the city center, they could see squads of Choisant and City Watch guards continuing their thorough house by house search. They had narrowly escaped the sweep of their own building by climbing out the window and up on to the roof. From there, they jumped across several buildings until they were out of the search’s cordon, but still close enough to observe. Aki especially wanted to make sure that their stashed Fòrsic equipment survived.
“No,” was Maz’s short reply. Aki watched as members of the Watch and Choisant soldiers marched up and down the streets, accosting passersby and raiding homes. They were not subtle about it. She hadn’t expected them to be, but she still found it disconcerting to watch squads of guards frisk and accost pedestrians. Nearby, others broke into buildings one by one. If people protested, they were slammed to the ground and hogtied, to be dragged away for later processing.
“I wonder if they’ll be less heavy handed in the wealthier districts?” Jos said behind her.
Padraig snorted. “Dar-Alos knows they will. Only the poor are treated this… poorly.”
Maz looked at Aki and rolled her eyes at the pun. Aki smiled, and decided it was time for some education. “You’re only half right. Plenty of our new members have come from the upper-crust of the City, and the Prime, or at least the Choisant, has to be aware of that. You’re also missing something important.”
“Yes,” Aki’s smiled turned grim. “They’ve attached harsh penalties to vague crimes, including complete seizure of assets for ‘conspiracies against the government’.”
“What does that matter?” Asked Jos.
“The Prime wants more power, and needs more funds. It’s the perfect time for some of his political opponents to be found to be enemies in truth. Regardless of whether that’s actually the case.”
“Sneaky bastard,” Padraig muttered.
“And don’t you forget it,” Maz advised, her voice solemn.
“Although in this case it was probably Magnus Stirech’s suggestion,” Aki put in. “The Choisant is always looking for more excuses to go rummaging through other people’s possessions.”
All four of them watched in silence after that, as the search cordon tightened and moved up the streets and out of sight. Finally, Maz sighed. “Jails will be crowded tonight.”
Aki looked at her, “You thinking new converts to the cause?”
Maz shrugged. “Worth looking into.”
“Well forget it. They’ll be handed off to Dak. Which means off the city. We don’t know when they’ll repair the spar crystals, so it’s too risky to go poking around.”
“Mention it to Darius!” Jos suggested with enthusiasm.
Aki frowned. He had a point. The Resistance had resources that were beyond them. Namely, resources form outside Ater-Volante. Maybe he could pass the word along. She hated relying on other people, but it galled her to do nothing as citizens, innocents, were hauled away in chains. “I’ll bring it up at the meeting tonight,” she said after a moment. “But for now, it’s time for us to go.”
With the search and purge still ongoing, strategy meetings between the senior members of the Engineer’s Rebellion had to be very circumspect. Aki was of the opinion that they represented an unacceptable risk. Especially considering how little they were able to agree on, these days. No one had listened to her. The influx of former Eolas faculty and Volante merchants, all of whom were used to regular meetings as part of their day-to-day routines, were so far unwilling to change their behaviors. At least when it came to the senior members. Aki often found herself cursing their new rebellion by committee. She and her Engineers had had to focus on keeping everyone else safe from the purges and searches while the others argued. And she still had to turn up for the meetings. She fully expected the Choisant to come crashing through the door. As far as she was concerned, it was a miracle they had avoided them this long.
“The point stands, it was your reckless and unplanned action…” Aki’s thoughts turned inward as Lothar droned on. She had to concede that he had a point, although she never would admit it. She met Darius’s gaze across the table, and he winked at her and rolled his eyes. Aki smiled. At least someone agreed with her.
As well he should, she thought to herself, it was his idea after all. And he had claimed a plan to go along with it. Maybe it’s time to hold his feet to the fire for a change. She opened her mouth to interrupt Lothar’s drone and ask Darius direct, when there came a pounding knock at the door.
Everyone flinched. Everyone, except Darius, and Lothar, who might not have noticed if the ceiling had caved in. The eyes of the room swiveled to the door in apprehension. Aki cursed herself for jumping along with the rest of them, she was supposed to be made of sterner stuff. The knocking came again; Lothar’s pompousness ground to a halt as he realized he was no longer the center of attention. Once he was silent, Darius rose to his feet.
“I’ll just get the door, shall I?” He said, a cheeky grin on his face.
Aki frowned, and tried to catch his eye. What is he up to? She wondered, but he ignored her, just as he ignored the shouts and protests from the rest of the gathering. Before anyone could stop him, he strode to the door and threw it open with a flourish. Highlighted in the doorway was a tall figure in a dark cloak. The Magnus! Aki swore in a sudden terror, and darted for her weapons. She had almost reached them, when Darius announced “Ladies and gentlemen, I present an end to your bickering. I present the Don of the Resistance, Alistair Gaunt!”