Chapter 27

There was nothing to be foraged, and Shy warned Mira against drinking the water that they frequently across.  Their meals were lighter than Mira wanted, but Shy had come prepared, and they were in no danger of starving. After two full days of walking, they reached a simple hole in the ground, different from all the others they’d seen only in that it wasn’t filled with water.

Its edges were puckered and curled up, as if some great force had blasted out of the hole. The hole was maybe four feet across, and its interior was slick and smooth. Shy stood at the edge, hands on her hips, and looked down into it.

“What is it?” Mira asked.

“The entrance to the Toshi Reliquary,” Shy said.

“Shodo said the Toshi Reliquary was the one we were at back in that city.”

Shy glanced over at Mira. “Did he? Maybe we’ll never know for sure. Information about the Reliquaries is hard to find, probably deliberately. Every scrap we find conflicts with something else. Jorath has probably spent more time puzzling over which pieces to believe than everything else combined since he came up with this whole plan.”

“Then how do you know this really leads to another Reliquary?” Mira asked.

Shy shrugged. “We don’t. But Jorath said it would, and that this one is conveniently on the way to where we were supposed to be going, so we’re going to investigate it while we’re here.”

They stared down into the blackness at their feet together, silently. “I really don’t want to go down there,” Mira said after a minute.

“I would have thought you’d be used to doing things you don’t want to by now.”

“That doesn’t make it better. What are we waiting for?”

Shy glanced up at the sun. “For however long it takes to fill up with water and drain away again. It’s supposed to cycle every few hours, and since we have no idea how long it’s been since the last fill, I’d rather not get five minutes in and drown.”

“Jesus. Ok, anything else I should know?”

“How well do you see in the dark?” Shy asked.

“Uh…”

She smirked and sat down a few feet away from the hole. “Then I guess there’s not much you can do but hang onto me and do what I tell you.”

Mira muttered a few choice words under her breath and settled down across the opposite side of the hole to wait.

* * *

“Do you feel that?” Mira asked an hour later.

Shy didn’t look over from the hoop she’d been peering through since they’d arrived. “The rumbling? Yes.”

“Should we be worried?”

“No, this is what we’ve been waiting for. If you look into the hole, it should be filling.”

Mira leaned forward and peered into the darkness. “I don’t see any- whoah! Holy shit!”

She threw herself backward just as a geyser of water blasted past her. It arced forty feet straight up before splashing hot water down on them. Or rather, on her, since Shy has wisely moved far enough back when the rumbling started that she remained dry. Mira glared at her and muttered, “Bitch.”

“I heard that,” Shy said.

“Bitch,” Mira said again, louder. Shy just laughed.

The geyser died away after a few seconds, leaving a pool of water level with the puckered edge of the hole. Even as they watched, it dropped an inch or two. Within a minute, a few feet of the hole’s interior was visible. Shy gave it five minutes before she was satisfied.

A pair of spiders, the same ones she’d had with her in the cafe, crawled down her arms, becoming bigger with each step. By the time they dropped to the ground, they were up to Mira’s calf. Ignoring her, they spun threads anchored to the edge of the hole and descended into the darkness. They wove around each other as they went, creating one thick, flexible line.

“After you,” Shy said.

Mira crouched at the side of the hole and swung her legs over. She grabbed the spider thread rope,  and tested her weight on it. It was slightly sticky, like old linoleum with dried soda pop on it, but it held. Slowly, using her legs as much as her arms, Mira lowered herself down twenty or so feet. Then the wall disappeared and she was hanging freely in the air.

What little light the hole let in only served to show Mira a small circle of wet stone. She slid down the rest of the rope, or at least skidded down it as the tacky surface caught her hands. Once she’d reached the bottom, it was only a few seconds’ wait before Shy came down after her.

The demon went hand over hand, apparently strong enough that holding her own weight with a single hand presented no difficulty at all. When she reached the ground, the spiders crawled out of the darkness and up her legs. They settled onto her shoulders and flattened out into a patch of brown and black, the details too indistinct to make out in the poor light.

“Which way?” Mira asked.

“I can tell you where it isn’t,” Shy said. “But this place is enormous, and even after the water drains away, some of it is left behind. I don’t know what might be hidden under those pools.”

“Then why are we down here?” Mira asked. “If you don’t know where it is, we could have stayed up top while your… whatever you call it… the thing, looked around.”

“I’m still looking. We’re going to be looking at the same time. I’m depending on you to keep your head and lead while I look around magically. Try not to get us lost.”

“Oh. Well that’s fantastic. Which directions have you already checked then? I can’t even see how far this place goes.”

A glowing tattoo crawled up onto Shy’s hip and pulled itself free of her skin. The same baby salamander that had lit their way back at the first seal plopped down onto the floor and made its way to Mira. “Go on, you can pick it up,” Shy said.

Mira bent down and the salamander crawled into her hand. With a bit of prompting from Shy, they started off toward the edge of the cavern. A passage shot away from the cavern, its walls smoothed from the constant bursts of water that passed through it. It didn’t run precisely straight, but the curves were gradual enough that they’d probably changed direction three or four times before Mira realized.

She did her best to keep track of the intersections they passed by as they walked. Mira had a very real and very legitimate fear of getting lost and drowning the next time the tunnels flooded. Shy produced a dagger for her to mark the walls with, but even that only went so far toward making her feel better. She’d feel safe when she was back above ground.

They explored for half an hour without finding anything. The tunnels were all smooth, damp things, some bigger and some smaller. Occasionally, Shy would steer her in a certain direction if they started to drift into some place she’d already investigated.

“How long are we going to stay down here?” Mira asked. “We don’t really know how long we have. If we showed up just after it flooded, we could have used half our time already.”

“I think we’ve got some leeway still,” Shy said. “I didn’t see any geysers while we were approaching.”

“But do we know whether that happens every time?”

“Hmm… true. Alright, let’s head back for now until we can get more information. I’d rather have to listen to Jorath complain about us being late than him find us drowned in these tunnels.”

It was easier to say than to do. They made slow progress backward following Mira’s mark, and she was confident that, given enough time, they would eventually make it back aboveground. That was the catch though. It was taking longer to get back than it had taken to go down, and Shy wasn’t any sort of helpful.

Visions of a wall of water slamming into her and flushing her deeper into the honeycombed caverns danced in Mira’s head as she walked. She wanted to hurry, but the salamander’s light didn’t always extend from wall to wall, and if she missed a single marker, she might not ever find her way out. She forced herself to be patient, despite the nagging fears in the back of her mind.

“Stop,” Shy hissed. She held up a hand to silence Mira before she could even say anything. “There’s something else down here.”

The salamander jumped out of Mira’s hand and scurried ahead of them. It hadn’t gone more than fifty feet before it lit up a group of people standing across the tunnel. It was hard to tell in the light, but they looked wrong, somehow. It might have been the unnaturally pale skin, or the expressionless mask of their faces. Or it might have just been the light playing tricks on her. She couldn’t be sure.

They advanced as a single unit, their steps in time. “Well that’s creepy as hell,” Mira said. “What’s the plan?”

“Do you think you could find a way around them?” Shy said.

Mira hesitated. “Honestly? I’d be afraid to try. This place scares the crap out of me, and the thought of being lost down here until water rushes in and pins me against a wall while I drown  is making me kind of sick.”

“I guess we’re going through them then. Fight to kill, and hope this group is the only thing down here.”

Mira pulled the heartstone out of its pouch and shot a look at Shy. “Are they human?”

“Does it matter? Do you think they have good intentions?”

“It matters to me,” Mira said.

“That makes you stupid then,” Shy told her. “I don’t plan on dying here, and I don’t plan on letting these things capture me. That means I’m fighting to win.”

The light from the heartstone wasn’t bright enough, and the salamander was still too far down the tunnel, but Mira could see things crawling off Shy in the dark. She couldn’t make out the details, but one after another, shapes bulged up off Shy’s body and skittered off into the darkness.

Then the fight was on. As the first creature reached the people, they reacts with savagery. The weapons held in their hands went up, then came down in unison. The people barely even broke ranks except to surround the creature so that they could better pummel it from all sides.

A second, and then a third, of Shy’s minions attacked. There were no screams from the men and women when blood was drawn. Mira watched as something resembling a six foot long centipede slashed off a woman’s arm with its pincers, only to die when she brought a mace down on its head a second later without even pausing to look at the severed limb.

“Don’t just stand there and stare,” Shy said through gritted teeth. “Help me.”

“I can’t hit them without hitting yours too!”

“So start in the back then.”

Mira chewed on her lip and peered into the darkness. The salamander’s light wasn’t helping that much, especially not with the fighting. The other group’s ordered ranks hadn’t exactly broken down, but they were no longer marching in step as they advanced, and there were more than a few holes from where Shy’s pets had killed someone.

The inferolisk stone was hot in Mira’s hands. The heat radiated up her arms and into her chest, and Mira forced herself to relax. As she did, she realized that she could see better without the light than she could with it. Details were fuzzy, but the heat of their bodies was plainly there. Somehow, she’d never noticed before that she could sense body heat just like she could actual fire.

Mira shifted her focus to the ones bringing up the rear of the group. With an effort of will, she ignited the air around them. Not a one even so much as flinched. They marched forward, hair burning, skin red and blistering. Worse, the ones in front split to the side, giving the ones on fire a clear path at Shy and Mira.

Still aflame, they charged down the tunnel. “Holy hell!” Mira yelped, fumbling the heartstone and almost dropping it.

“Put them down!” Shy yelled. A squat, human-shaped thing that looked like it was made of blobs of clay attached to a wire skeleton hurled itself at the leading runner’s legs. Mira wasn’t sure if she expected the runner to trip or the clay-and-wire amalgamation to go flying when it got kicked.

It did neither. The clay blobs stuck to the runner’s leg and it stretched out go grab the other leg. The runner went down, and the creature’s limbs shot out to triple their original length to anchor the wall on either side. For a few brief moments, it held the entire line.

Then the runners spilled over it, some of them literally flipping upside down and tumbling over the side. The ones behind them didn’t stop or try to help them up. They just resumed their rush toward Shy and Mira.

Heat washed down the tunnel as Mira incinerated the leading wave. Their skin blackened and sloughed off their faces while their limbs churned. Slowly, one staggering step at a time, they collapsed until they were nothing but black smears on the flash-dried stone.

The entire tunnel froze to stare at the spectacle. Then Mira leaned over and puked her guts out, breaking the spell. She heaved again as the battle started back up, and it might have been those few seconds she took for herself that let her notice what nobody else apparently had.

“Shy!” she called out. “Look there! There’s water coming up through the floor.”

Shy followed Mira’s finger to see water coming up through fine cracks in the stone. Individually, there was barely enough to leave a few damp footprints if they walked through it. But there were dozens of cracks just next to them, and thousands more in the one tunnel alone.

Worse, the water was starting to bubble up faster. In some spots, it shot a few inches into the air before falling back to the ground.

“We need to get out of here,” Shy said. “Right now.”

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