The Missing Members
The blackness under the mountain was absolute. It wasn’t just a matter of not being able to see one’s hand in front of one’s face, it was so dark that Roshan sometimes wasn’t sure if he had hands at all. Or a face. For all that he could see, he might as well be a disembodied spirit under the mountain. Feeling was a different matter. His head ached. Off to his right, he could smell the stale mustiness that was their temporary privy. It wrinkled his nose whenever he noticed it, but that became less and less as he adjusted to the scent. His head and hair felt sticky with dried blood. At least my bleeding stopped, he thought. All that could be heard was a tap, tap, tap of rock against rock, matching the rhythm of his throbbing head. The cadence seemed to swell until it was all he was; one aching mind full of tap, tap, tap.
“Please, Rika, stop tapping.”
“Right, sorry. I forgot.”
Roshan heaved a heavy sigh, “I know, I’m sorry. There’s not much else to do, but it hurts my head.”
“I don’t know how that’s possible,” Rika said, but she stopped. They sat in silence.
“How much water do you have left?” Roshan asked.
He heard Rika sloshing her water skin back and forth. “It’s about three quarters gone.”
“Mine too, I think,” they lapsed into silence again. Roshan assumed there wasn’t much Rika felt like talking about. He himself couldn’t think of anything. They’d tried a few conversations, but they all circled back around to whether Isa and Eithne were coming to get them. They were. He knew they were, but talking about waiting for them just made the situation worse. The last they had seen of them had been the light from Isa’s arms disappearing back into the vent after she had dropped off the water skins they had found. Isa had also reported that the main chamber of the cavern had also partially collapsed, blocking the exit, but she and Eithne thought they had found one of the shafts leading to the surface. There was no sign of the Don. Roshan supposed that could be a good sign, but his thoughts continued to run in pessimistic circles, digging their ruts deeper and deeper.
Roshan heard Rika’s stomach growl. His gut answered with its own baying rumble. If only Isa and Eithne had been able to find our food, he thought, and sighed. The silence of the mountain pressed down on the both of them, oppressive in its stillness. It was time to assay another attempt at conversation. “Hey, Rika,” he turned and looked towards where she was, even if he couldn’t see anything.
“I can’t believe I never asked this before, but how did you an Isa meet?”
“What?” he heard the smile in her voice.
“I guess I just assumed you had always been together, but there had to have been a beginning, right?”
“You’re right. And I really haven’t known Isa for the long, it just feels like forever,” she was silent for several moments. Just as Roshan was about to prompt her again, Rika said “It was just over three years ago, right before I joined the Resistance,” her voice was soft, the rhythm sinking into one of memory.
“Like all Isa stories, it begins with an explosion…”
“And ends with one too?”
Rika laughed, “I’ll get to that. Now try not to interrupt,” Roshan heard cloth scrape on stone as she settled back against the wall. “The first time I saw Isa was at a party at Seaward, the university in Hascillis. I wasn’t invited. Then again, neither was she. We bumped into one another sneaking in the back.”
“Really? What were you both doing there?”
“Isa was infiltrating as a member of the Resistance, of course. My own case was a little more complicated,” Rika’s voice had wry tone.
“The party was in honor of the Chancellor of the University’s son, who had just achieved his Maestery. The conniving bastard was also my former research partner.”
“Oh,” Roshan said, he thought he could see where this was going.
“‘Oh’ is right,” Rika sounded bitter. “The scum stole my research, all of it. When I brought an accusation before the University court, the Chancellor had me expelled,” she sighed, and the anger flowed out of her voice. “The injustice still rankles me, but it brought me so I can’t be too mad,” there was a pause as they both stared out at the darkness. “Well, maybe a little mad, but the point stands,” They both laughed a little, and lapsed into silence. Roshan was still curious though.
“The party?” he prompted.
“Right, the party. I was sneaking in on some ill-advised attempt at revenge when I tripped, literally, over Isa. I think we both tried to get though one of the windows at the same time. We had both used crystals with concealing glyphs, never even saw each other until we were a pile of tangled limbs on the floor. It was an Alos-damned miracle that no one heard. We started bickering instantly,” Roshan could hear the smile in her voice. “Never really stopped, I suppose.”
“What happened to your former partner?”
“Once I explained why I was there, Isa threw away her own mission to help me. The party was for the Chancellor to showcase his son to other university officials and some government higher-ups. Part of the presentation was of his research. My research. Long story short, we sabotaged it. It blew up in his face,” she sighed, “the glee in that moment, the working together even as we argued and impressed each other. I think it was the most fun I’ve ever had.”
“I’ll bet Syd was angry.”
Rika laughed, “She got over it. Eventually. It helped that I joined up. And then I was with them ever since,” there was a long silence as she finished her tale. Roshan sat, thinking. After a while, he noticed Rika had been more silent than usual.
“You’ve been worried about her,” he said.
She snorted. “I wasn’t exactly hiding that fact.”
“I guess not. I mean, I’m sure you’re always a touch worried about Isa…”
Rika laughed, a little, “too true. But, this time… this time I was going to lose her. I could feel it,” Roshan realized with alarm that she sounded like she was choking back tears.
“Everything is going to be all right,” he said. “I cured her.”
“Do you really think that? We barely knew what was wrong with her. We still don’t,” the bitterness in her voice was palpable. “And now she’s off gallivanting and we’re stuck here waiting to die.”
“Not gallivanting, they’re coming back,” Roshan pointed out.
“I know that,” it was practically a shout. Then, in a much softer voice, so quiet Roshan wasn’t even sure that he heard it, Rika said, “I’m just not sure I believe it.”
Roshan thought he knew what she meant. He was starting to think similar thoughts, it was hard to hold onto hope in the darkness. He decided to change the subject, “I have a theory.”
He heard a rustle of cloth as she shook her head, “of course you do. You wouldn’t be you without having a theory,”
Roshan shrugged. “I am who I am. Do you want to hear my idea or not?”
Rika snorted, “I guess so,” Roshan was relieved she didn’t sound as angry and hopeless as she had before. “Tell me your theory, then.”
“It’s like this. We know that the energy in Fòrsic crystals is generated slowly, over a long period of time. There are many possible explanations for this, the turning of the Earth, energy from the stars, etc.”
“I know all this,” Rika said, complaining.
“I know, bear with me. One of those theories is that Fòrsa energy is everywhere, surrounding us. Some unique property of the crystals draws it in, allowing us to use it, but the Fòrsa itself is really everywhere.”
“Okay, keep going.”
Roshan was getting excited now. He gesticulated as he talked, despite that fact Rika wouldn’t be able to see him. “Isa’s been exposed to a lot of weird blasts of Fòrsic energy over the last year, including having crystals imbedded in her arms. What if she became attuned to that Fòrsic field?”
“Like a crystal? Rika sounded skeptical. “Is that even possible?
“Apparently so,” Roshan rubbed his hands together. “So here is the theory. She became attuned to the free floating Fòrsa, but not all the way. The Fòrsa didn’t have anywhere to go, so it was making her sick. When we added extra energy from crystals, it expressed as the same type as whatever glyph we used, because we gave it a channel.”
“dar-Alos be damned,” Rika said in a low voice. “That makes some sense. And you think your last madness with the Foinse-rod reset her attunement in just the right way?”
“Huh,” Rika said after a moment. “You’re a madman, but it does seem to hold water as a theory.”
“Thank you,” Roshan said, trying to be modest.
“You know,” Rika said, “A similar principle is the basis for blood magic…”
“Oh…” Roshan hadn’t made that connection before. Once Rika spoke, he wished that she hadn’t made it, either. “I suppose. This feels different though, somehow. For one, Isa is alive.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry I brought it up. Still, it’s interesting.”
“I’m not sure if interesting is the word I would use, unsettling, maybe.”
He heard Rika nod. “It is that,” they were silent again. Roshan leaned his head back against the stone wall, his excitement at expounding his theory draining out of him into the vast stillness around them. He felt so tired. Roshan closed his eyes and let the coolness of the stones surrounding him wash through his thoughts. The darkness throbbed in rhythm with his heartbeat, a distant whump, whump, whump that merged with a more immediate tap, tap, tap.
“I thought I told you to stop that Alos cursed tapping,” He said.
Roshan snorted, “I can hear your fingers! Listen!” They both went quiet. Off in the distance he heard the sound again, tap, tap, tap, tap… “See!”
“Roshan,” Rika’s voice was hushed. “That’s not me.”
He frowned. “How can that not be you, I can hear it right there.”
“Roshan! It’s not ME,” she stressed the words.
“Oh,” his thoughts snapped into focus, “OH!”
“Exactly,” Rika laughed. “Someone is coming to get us.”
* * ************************
For all of their excitement, rescue was not immediately forthcoming. They sat, often in silence, listening to the growing sounds of excavation. Rika could hear a vast symphony of sounds, but she was left to guess what each one might be. She was sure the steady tapping was a hammer or a pick, but there was also the scraping sound of shovels and the clink of metal on rock. Once or twice there was a rumble that sounded like an explosion. Sure proof that Isa was on her way. Rika wondered why there was so little use of Fòrsic energy, but when she voiced her question aloud, Roshan said it was because any explosions might bring the roof down further. Rika kept a wary ear on the ceiling after that. Occasionally some dust fell. She could hear it sprinkle down onto the smooth floor, or, if it hit her, feel it sticking to her clammy skin. It was time to be gone. But, they could do nothing but wait as the sounds of tunneling grew louder, and the trickles of dust grew wider. Rika wasn’t sure which would arrive first, the rescue party, or the ceiling.
Finally, with the dull clunk of metal on rock, a shaft of bright, white light opened. Rika winced, and closed her eyes. She covered them with her sleeve, and opened them a crack. Isa’s face was illuminated in the shaft of light. She was grinning from ear to ear, and covered in grey dust.
“Did you miss me?” She asked.
Rika smiled back, “Only a little,” she struggled to her feet. Her legs were sore from inactivity. Roshan lifted his head to follow her up. He looked ghastly. His face was pale and grimy, and streaked with blood. His hair was a crusty mass.
He winked at Rika, “How do I look?”
“Probably about as well as you feel.”
He winced. “That bad, huh,” Rika grasped his arm and hauled him to his feet. He gasped and swayed, holding his head. Visibly gritting his teeth, he steadied his legs and his breathing. “Let’s get out of here.”
With Isa and some men from the village on one side, and Rika on the other, they passed through the rubble in short order. Isa was the first through the gap, and she grabbed Rika in a crushing hug. Rika let her head fall onto her shoulder with a grateful sigh.
“You stink,” Isa said.
“Do I?” Rika asked, her face still buried in Isa’s shoulder, “I hadn’t noticed. I must have been distracted by being trapped in a cave for years.”
Isa ignored her and looked at Roshan, Rika twisted her head to follow her gaze. “Alos, you’re a sight,” Isa wrinkled her nose, “You smell, too. Let’s get you two into a bath.”
“A bath sounds wondrous,” Roshan said. “Did you bring one with you?”
“Sorry, you’ll have to hike down with the rest of us.”
“I knew it was too good to be true,” he said, stretching. He sighed heavily, “Let’s get this over with.”
“Wait,” Isa said. She procured two red bandanas from a leather pouch on her belt and proffered them. “For your eyes. Eithne and I were near blinded when we stumbled out into the light,” As Rika took one bandana for herself and passed the other to Roshan, she looked pointedly at Isa’s arms. Following her glance, Isa shrugged, “Still… the way they were. I put on heavier leathers though. Best not to upset people.”
Rika nodded, and tied her bandana around her eyes. She could still see somewhat, but the light was filtered through a red haze and much less painful.
“Where is Eithne, anyway?” Roshan asked.
“She stayed behind to ready the village for us,” Isa said.
Rika frowned, there was something evasive about Isa’s tone. She was too tired to get into in now though. All she wanted was to be out from under the mountain.
“Lead on,” she said.
The men from the village were waiting outside in the tunnel they had cleared. The smiled with relief as Isa led Rika and Roshan through the gap. Rika grinned at them, “What took you so long?” They were covered in dust and showing clear signs of exhaustion. The collection of semi-familiar faces tickled the back of Rika’s mind. Something was off.
“We came as soon as we could,” a tall, slender man said. His red hair marked him as Crystalin.
“I don’t doubt it, Evan,” Roshan said. “Who would drink your chicory in the mornings if you hadn’t come to rescue me.”
The man laughed. “Irreplaceable, that’s what you are,” he said, and the two of them clasped hands. The group led Rika and Roshan outside, where packs of water, and dried meat and cheese were waiting. Once they had filled their aching bellies, and quenched their parched throats, Rika felt well enough to look around. She raised her blindfold. The light was painfully bright, but not so much that she wouldn’t adjust. The surrounding hillside looked much the same as when they had entered the cave, muddy and tree-lined. Rika felt a trifle disappointed. She had expected damage outside of the cave, as well.
Guess it was just us then, she thought. Her single-minded devotion to eating ended, her brain started to work again. The village men, and Isa, were readying packs for the descent. Rika took a moment to peer at them with greater care, studying them as opposed to a glimpse in a dark tunnel. Something clicked. These are just men from Alsce, she thought. Her belly knotted.
Out loud, she asked, “Why didn’t any Resistance members come?” Everyone shifted to stony silence. Rika felt her pulse quicken. The silence seemed to spread out further and further with each thudding heartbeat. Unable to bear it any longer, Rika looked to Isa.
“What happened? Tell me,” she demanded.
“They’re gone,” Isa said. Though her voice was low, the words seemed to hang in the air. Her skin was pale, a worrying sign on someone as dark-skinned as she was. All Rika felt was confusion. And worry.
“What do you mean they’re gone? Who’s gone? Where?” Rika sounded angry, even to her own ears. Her words had note of bewilderment to them.
Roshan reached understanding before her. “The Don,” he said. Isa looked at him and he continued, “He’s taken the Foinse-rod, hasn’t he,” the words were flat, without inflexion.
Isa nodded, but said nothing.
Isa dipped her head, and stared hard at the ground. “Ater-Volante,” she whispered.
Rika felt threads coming together in her mind, seeking to make sense out of what she had just heard. The Don was heading to Ater-Volante, at the head of an army of Resistance members. Why? And Why now?
Once again Roshan was ahead of her in his thinking. He sank to the ground with a mien of defeat, yet his words were snarled in anger. “He wanted me to turn my research into a weapon. When I did, he left us for dead. Who knows how many other people will be killed?”
“Hang on,” Rika said. “We don’t know what he intends, or what he was thinking,” She looked around Isa, Roshan, and the men from Alsce. “Aren’t we part of the Resistance? Don’t we want the Prime to fall?”
Roshan shook his head. “Not like this. Not because of me. I wanted to save people…” He trailed off, his head in his hands.
Rika put a comforting hand on his shoulder, and looked at Isa.
Isa shrugged, “They were gone when we reached the village. Syd, Simon, Trentor, Alistair, all of them. No one left knew where they had gone, or why.”
“How did you find out?” Rika asked.
Isa’s lips quirked up in a half smile, “Trentor’s lady-friend found me. He had told her where, told her to tell us when we resurfaced. They, at least, believed we were alive.”
“Yet they left anyway,” Rika said, a musing tone in her voice. “Did Trentor leave any other message?”
Isa smiled broadened. “‘Come find us.’”
Rika smiled back. So that’s how it was. Something was askew, and Trentor, probably at Syd’s orders, was telling them to unravel the mystery. She clapped Roshan on his shoulder.
“Snap out of your mood,” she said.
He lifted his head. His eyes were red. “Why?”
“Because we’re heading to Ater-Volante.”
Chapter 26 can be found here.