Before the Endless
The air in the closed tent was smoky, with a hint of possibility. Zuzana sipped the tiny cup of brown liquid that Velabahleke had called coffee, finding it lacked the punch of her hometown brew, though it did taste delicious. Anushka and Varun both downed the steaming cup in a single gulp, their scarred faces giving no hint at the scalding heat of the coffee. Blagoje seemed as skeptical as she, while Velabahleke simply smiled at them.
The last man in the room, an elderly clanner with skin like leather and a veritable landscape of shifting tattoos. He simply sat the small center table, legs crossed and eyes darting between each of her companions, before resting on her. "So we are in agreement? You will accompany Velabahleke on his journey to discover the grain of truth in this haystack of a story, and you will accompany him back," he held the half-full cup of coffee towards her, as in a toast. To her credit, she caught the gesture quickly, "agreed?".
She gently tapped her cup to his, then followed the elder as they downed their cups in a single gulp. She gently put the cup down, unsure how delicate it would be. "Agreed, and you will pay us half first then half after."
The tattooed man simply chuckled, his eyes gleaming Dust-gold. "Ah, of course. I must apologise," the man grasped his cup in a quick grip and held it up, "but agreement is implicit in finishing the drink," Zuzana glared, "but fear not. We do not wish to lose valued allies, so we will of course hold our end of the bargain." He held out his hand across the small table, smile still gleaming. "If you would rest for the night in our camp, we should have your first half prepared in the morning."
Of course, Zuzana thought, she was unaware of the Trader customs, as she reached to grasp the elders hand. As her gaze shifted from the hand to the mans face, she saw a mane of Dust cascade from his shoulders, and his face transform into an emotionless mask. To her right, Blagoje shifted his craggy features to look at her with a curious expression, rock-like mask staring at her. Varuns scars were flowing with living fire as his whip-like arm held the empty coffee cup. Anushkas scars and tattoos, in contrast, vanished on the watery surface of her skin, and Velabahlekes presence was disturbing the careful decorations of the room as the tempest of wind that made up his core raged.
Crying out, Zuzana ripped the covers away and surged to her feet. The grass was wet with dew, and the trees swayed quietly in a morning breeze. Velabahleke gave a start, but her fellow Vaulter Blagoje simply stared then went back to starting the campfire. She could not see Varun or Anushka about, so they must still be sleeping.
The Trader had been warming his hands by the fire when she woke, and now the dark-skinned man was sitting back down, rubbing his hands together to dispel the cold of the waking forest. "Are you alright, Lady Shuksin?"
Raising herself up on the elbows, she decided she could not tell if Velabahleke was concerned or simply asking. "I will be fine once I get some coffee. Vaulter coffee." She clothed herself quickly, trusting the coffee to warm her despite her chilly garments. Without a word spoken, Blagoje set a steaming cup of coffee in front of her as she sat down. "I simply had a bad dream, that's all." she said, sipping at the hot liquid.
There was a shuffling from the Ardent tent, and Anushka pushed back the tent flaps, stretching in the morning breeze. "Among my people, we regard dreams as portents of the future. Bad dreams, even more so."
Zuzana sipped the coffee. Strong, but slightly too hot for her liking. "And among my people, we regard dreams as something to get out of the way so you can get back to work."
Varuns gravelly voice sounded from the tent, its owner probably still ensconced in his sleeping bag. "Then it too was an omen. An omen of work." Anushka scoffed, then kicked the tent supports. As Varuns scarred face appeared between the tent flaps, the Ardent woman went over and sat by the fire.
Despite Zuzanas intentions, the morning proceeded slowly. Breakfast was made and eaten while Velabahleke discussed their task and how they should find their destination.
"You said you knew where to go." Blagoje said, stirring the oatmeal with a ladle.
The trader scratched at his sideburns, pushing the last bit of oatmeal around his bowl with his spoon. "I said I knew the region we should look in, and what we are looking for. As to the exact directions, we will have to find the way ourselves." Blagojes said nothing in reply.
Zuzana looked at her fellow Vaulter, wondering if he might present a problem in the future. "So what are we looking for then?"
Velabahleke reached into his pack and withdrew a scroll case, unrolling the contents onto a sheet of leather. Inside were 2 large sheets of paper, the first depicting a map of the region. A mountain range to the west was encircled by a line of red paint. The map was quite stylised, so the scale would be unreliable for determining distance. Zuzana could feel the blood rush from her face when she saw the second sheet. 5 masks, each emotionless in its own way.
"The Vault of the Ones Who Came Before. A great quantity of Dust, along with a sizeable amount of treasure. It's quite possible that there will be some incredible armaments among the treasures as well."
She tried to ignore the painting of the masks as much as she could, and pointed at the stylised map. "I am unfamiliar with this range. How big is it, and can we feasibly search the area?" They had only brought so many supplies, so spending weeks upon weeks searching for a decorated cave on a mountain was not a plan she would willingly pursue.
Varun held up his spoon for silence, chewing on his oatmeal as fast as he could. "I suspect I have been there before. The style of the map is obviously different, but it resembles a mountain range my old regiment searched once on a superiors orders."
Blagoje scooped a portion of oatmeal into his bowl. "How big?"
The Ardent scratched at his bald chin. "We searched the mountains for 3 days before we found our objective, which was considerably smaller than a doorway. It's no bigger than Brenla, the city of my birth, though considerably more difficult to navigate."
"Then I suggest we move out, get an early start." Anushka rose to her feet, gaze moving between the others.
Zuzana stood up and stretched. "Agreed. Pack the campsite, Blagoje, you clean after breakfast."
The tents were swiftly folded away and cooking tools packed, and the bags placed on their pack´-horse, thoughtfully supplied by Velabahlekes clan. According to the trader, their riding beasts were extraordinarily clever and very well trained, so they should not fear their supplies being lost or the horse running off in fear at the rustle of a bush. While breakfast had been a long affair, the sun was not so high in the sky that they could not tell east from west. According to the map, the mountain range was west of them, though the exact distance was difficult to discern. Zuzana assumed it would be the first mountain they would find on the way. After an hour, they left the forest behind, emerging onto a grassy plain. Here they made good time for a few hours, until they met their first obstacle.
They'd found a small hole next to a cluster of trees on the plain, hiding in the depression. The dark earth was still damp though it had not rained for days, and the scent of rich dirt pervaded the area. Zuzana hoped that would not present a problem, though she also did not think it would. The white-porcelain creatures marching past their hidey-hole had no beasts with them, and she had never seen nor heard of a Cultist giving any indication of senses beyond sight or sound. She had faith in her companions ability to fight, but the Cultists would outnumber them 5 to 1. And what was worse, the regiment was marching towards the mountain range that the group had seen when they emerged from the forest. The others were talking behind her, thankfully keeping their voices low.
Even when she tried to keep silent, however, Anushkas voice still had a notably shrill quality. "Varun, you are the most travelled of us. What would the Cultists want at this Fire-forsaken mountain range?"
There was a short pause. The Cultists gave no indication of noticing their presence. "When I was here, the artifact we were searching for was of Endless origin. For some reason, the Cultists seek to destroy the legacy of that people."
Velabahleke sounded perturbed. "Elder Pashang said the treasure would have Endless artifacts. We must reach it before they do. I will not lose a speck of Dust to some porcelain-faced creature."
Varuns gravelly voice sounded again. "Then I propose we follow them for the time being," Zuzana turned to look at him. The Cultist regiment was almost out of sight. "They might know something we do not," He returned her stare, "All we know is that a doorway somewhere in the mountains has curious symbols engraved on it. Not a lot to go on if we are on the clock."
"So we follow them."
There was a moment of silence in the hole before Anushkas voice piped up. "Pardon?"
Blagoje shifted around, trying to make as little sound as he could. "Cult uses slaves. Wouldn't send real troops unless it was important."
"So they know something," Zuzana couldn't decide whether Velabahleke sounded relieved or distressed, "Or they would not send their real troops, as opposed to simply send some of their indoctrinated sheep?" The bald vaulter simply nodded in response.
With no better plans forthcoming, the group moved out, following the Cultist regiment as close as they dared, the mountain-range growing on the horizon. What followed was a rough few days. The Cultists kept a slower pace than the troupe were used to in their own travels. Velabahleke seemed like a pampered son of a merchant, but not a word of complaint, about the pace at least, passed his lips. Zuzanas cooking was not so lucky. But while the Cultists kept a slow pace in their march, their pace was unrelenting. On the first day, as the mountains climbing above the horizon were beginning to catch the sun, Zuzana asked the Anushka and Varun to range further from the group, find a place to spend the night out of sight. Thankfully the pair found them again before the night truly fell, for the Cultist regiment never ceased their march. Morning came, and still the porcelain-faced creatures marched. 2 days passed slowly and painfully as they tracked the regiment.
Zuzana almost longed for the labors she had performed at home, as her legs ached and her mind struggled to hold any coherent thought. Behind her, her companions sat numbly, waiting for her signal to move. Even Blagoje, stoic even against the hardiest work, was visibly affected and pale. Velabahlekes humorous quips had stopped halfway through the second day. The two Ardents had surprised her, the inhuman toil of the march invigorating their spirits. At the foot of the mountain outside their hiding spot, the Cultist regiment had stopped, holding their march for the first time in the 3 days they had been following them. The change was so sudden that she was afraid she had fallen asleep. Biting her own thumb quickly dispelled that fear. "They've stopped."
A tattooed hand rested quietly on the rock to her left as Varun joined her at the front. The mage looked up at the mountain-range that now loomed above them, a curious light to his eyes. "This does look like the area my regiment searched when I was here last."
Anushkas voice was shriller than usual. "You never did say what you were looking for or if you found it."
"We were ordered to keep it a secret."
This did not seem to satisfy the Ardent woman. "You don't exactly serve the 22nd Atonement anymore. Surely an order does not apply now, especially in this wild place."
Varun still peered over the rock at the Cultists who had still not moved from their position. "The order came from Asalah Arca, so you will excuse me if I am reluctant to break that particular order."
The name meant nothing to Zuzana, but the usually-confident Anushka sounded cowed. "The High Inquisitor. Excused."
The period of calm that followed was almost more perilous to their chase than the days of walking. Exhausted from the march, the inactivity caused a few of them to fall asleep where they sat, to be quietly awoken by their tired comrades.
"We need actual rest, not this torturous waiting." The Cultists still had not moved, while Zuzana had tried to move the group slightly closer.
Blagoje's gravelly voice came from her right where he was sitting with his crossbow ready but unloaded. "They have stopped. We can sleep."
"We don't know why they stopped, so we don't know when they are going to move on," Zuzana sighed, "Too risky."
Anushka quietly sat down to her left, her tattooed hand resting lightly on the tree they were sitting behind. "Then we sleep in shifts. Me and Varun are the least affected by the march, so we take first shift."
"And Varun actually agreed to this?"
The Ardent woman nodded. "He suggested it, and I said I would propose the idea. He's moved a little further ahead."
Her mind fogged by exhaustion, Zuzana had not noticed the mage leaving their little troupe. After quickly scanning the surrounding treeline, trying in vain to locate him, she slowly rubbed her eyes. "That's what we will do then. You and Varun first, then me and Blagoje, then our guest can take last shift with me. 3 hours per shift."
The exhausted group did not even set up camp, but simply climbed into their bedrolls and immediately fell asleep. To Zuzana, it felt like she had barely lain down on the loamy ground before she was being shaken roughly awake by a tattooed hand.
"No change, the Cultists are still down on the plain." Anushka flipped her own bedroll out onto the soil, looking ready to fall asleep the moment she closed her eyes.
Zuzana almost felt worse than when she had gone to sleep, but that would hopefully go away. A fire had been set by the Ardents, all big logs with no kindling that was now reduced to embers. A pot of something steaming was hanging over the embers, which she happily gulped down, pouring a cup for Blagoje as well. The big man grunted in thanks, then grabbed his crossbow and sat on a rock overlooking the Cultist regiment out beyond the treeline.
Their shift passed mostly without incident. After the first hour had passed, the pot of coffee had been emptied, with Blagoje being on duty for refilling. While her comrade was away, a few of the Cultists began to move about, walking with shaking steps and curious manner around the regiment. If they had been less exotic creatures, she could have sworn they became temporarily drunk one at a time. When she told Blagoje, he gave her a look like she too was drunk. Half an hour passed, and the curious behaviour resumed, individual Cultists roaming a short distance from the regiment. As apology, she made Blagoje refill her cup. With the exhausting march and her too-short rest, she was uncertain what the time of night was, only that there was not a smidgeon of sunlight on either horizon. Beyond talking about the Cultists' odd behaviour, Zuzana and Blagoje said very little during their shift.
"Shift change," Blagoje muttered, stretching as he stood up, "I'll wake the trader."
Zuzana stood up as well, lightly pushing the shrub in front of her away. "Wait," Blagoje stopped, waiting for an explanation. "Wake all of them, we need to move."
Down on the plain, the regiment had begun to march again.
While the improvised camp was packed away in a hurry, Anushka swearing all the while that they would regret the resulting entanglement, Zuzana ranged ahead, keeping as close as she dared to the porcelain-white regiment as it slowly marched into the mountain range under the rising sun. There were no traces of the odd behaviour from the night before, and she knew not if the Ardents had seen it or not. There had been no need, then no time, to ask. The group caught up with her, Blagoje in front, as the last row of Cultists had left the plain beneath the mountains.
Velabahleke tied their pack-horse to a tree in a small grove in the shadow of the mountains. "There. Should we need to hurry, this knot can be untied quickly."
The Cultists had split up into smaller groups, presumably to search the range faster. The 60-strong regiment had split into 10 groups of 6, white dots growing ever smaller against the grey rocks of the mountains. Each of the porcelain-creatures was armed with a bow of some white wood and a quiver of arrows. She had seen no weapons for close combat, but the behaviour in the night had caused her to mark the Cultists as unpredictable. Looking around the group as they scanned the mountain, she knew they would be outnumbered if facing just one of the Cultist-patrols in a pitched battle. They were all veterans in their own way, except for the trader. Velabahleke was an unknown quantity in many ways. The composite shortbow he carried across his back seemed well-used but also well cared for, and he did not seemed unduly daunted at the prospect of wandering a mountain-range filled with Cultists.
Zuzana scanned the paths up the mountain, seeing how the patrols had split up. "If they discover us, we will be outnumbered and potentially on lower ground, and they are all armed with bows."
"In short, we would be massively disadvantaged." Varun was securing his weapons; a matched pair of bladed knuckles.
Anuska too was tying her weapon sash to secure it. "Assuming the Cultists are hostile."
Velabahleke simply waited, his relaxed smile still in place despite the circumstance. "In all my travels, I have never heard of Cultists with an amiable attitude. They are unpredictable ones, and even more so when the Endless are involved. We would best be served to consider them enemies to our task."
Zuzana nodded in agreement. "We'll follow one of the patrols, see what they find while we do our own exploration as best we can."
Blagoje carried his unloaded crossbow across his chest, his bolts in a closed pouch on his left thigh. "If we're seen?"
"Finish it quickly or run. We can handle one patrol, but even two would be pushing it."
The time was near midday when they proceeded into the mountains, following a patrol that would be furthest away from their fellows. Varun led Blagoje and Velabahleke in following the patrol up the mountain path, while Zuzana and Anushka split off on each side, trying to spot anything the Cultists might have missed. The shorter they were up in the mountains, the better.
Hours passed as they cautiously followed the Cultist patrol. Zuzana and Anusahka wove in and out of the main group, reporting what they saw of hints to the entrance and other patrols. They made no progress of their own, and the Cultists seemed equally unfortunate. Up close, the mountainside seemed just as bleak and featureless as it had looked from afar. Until half of the patrol they had been following vanished from view.
Velabahleke was in front when it happened, crouched behind a rock. "Varun, Blagoje, come and see," They both scurried up behind him, trying to peer past the cover without exposing themselves, "Something has happened to the patrol."
Up ahead, the patrol seemed just as confused as they were, as 3 of their number had vanished without a trace or cry of alarm. The mutual confusion was only heightened when dark-brown doorway appeared, revealing an open tunnel into the mountain. The 3 missing Cultists were stood inside, looking around at the sudden change in scenery.
"The entrance." Blagoje had his crossbow out, bolt locked and ready in the mechanism.
Varun was pulling his weapons on and scanning the rocks around them, hoping to see signs of their ranging members. "Seems to be the case. We need to move before they alert their fellows."
As the patrol reunited, the group advanced under cover of the rock dotted across, still searching for signs of their remaining memers.
Velabahleke leaned against a rock, arrow nocked on his bow. "We cannot sit idle and wait for Lady Shuksin and Lady Enlai to join us." Up ahead, the patrol was beginning to march off, probably making to meet up with another patrol and bring the whole regiment into the tunnel. Varun had moved off, circling around to flank and wait for the signal from the rest.
As the patrol turned their backs to them and began marching, Velabahleke and Blagoje rose and fired, arrow and bolt striking the back of one of the Cultists. The bolt shattered the porcelain armour, the arrow following it up by lodging itself deep into the black mass beneath. As the Cultist dropped, the others turned and drew their bows without missing a beat. While the two attempted to reload, the Cultists beat them to it, loosing a volley of arrow fire at them. They barely managed to duck, arrows clattering off the rocks around them. Velabahleke finished nocking his arrow first and rose again, in time to see Varun sprinting from his cover straight towards the patrol who were nocking their next volley. 3 of them turned to face the Ardent man, aiming their bows to bring him down before he could get to them. Only 1 of the Cultists managed to fire as a crossbow bolt slammed into ones face, dropping it. Another was literally disarmed as a titanium spear was launched across the opening, smashing the creatures arms from its body. Varun dove to the side, narrowly dodging the last projectile. Zuzana appeared, jumping down to the dirt under the rocks, covering behind a small rock to reload her crossbow. Anushka came running in from the opposite direction, making for the spear she had thrown into the fight. Like Varun, she too had to dive aside as a small volley of arrows shot towards her.
Almost completely surrounded, the Cultists did not notice Varun back on his feet before it was too late. Their lanky figure meant they were quite tall, but their form seemed to have little weight to it as the scarred man simply bulled one of them to the ground, slamming his bladed fist-weapon into what constituted its neck. The remaining 2 spun to face him, but their bows were cumbersome at such short range and they possessed no other weapons. Blagoje and Anushka were now also charging into the fray, assisting Varun who was fighting to sweep their bows aside. Club in hand, Blagoje reached them before the Ardent woman. With a chop of the stout club, one of the remaining Cultists almost lost its left arm, and the archer was wrestled to the dirt alongside its partner. Anushka ran past the survivor and retrieved her spear from the ground, turning in place to face the last opponent. From Velabahlekes position, everyone else was now positioned to the left of the remaining Cultist, giving him an opportunity to use his bow without fear of hitting his allies. He took it. The arrow crossed the distance in an instant, cracking against one of the hip-joints of the creature, dropping it to the ground. Before it could raise itself, a spear-point appeared at its neck, titanium edge gleaming through the dust.
"Stay down, if you know what's good for you." A bloody furrow ran across Anushkas left shoulder, but the woman only seemed more invigorated for it.
Zuzana kept her crossbow out as she approached. "I don't think it thinks that far, Anushka. Finish it off." The sound of the spear stabbing through the creatures neck punctuated the sentence.
"This one is alive." Blagoje had bound the Cultist he had tackled. Its arms were broken and useless, but it was still alive, as alive as the creatures of the Cult could be said to be.
Varun was probing the various injuries he had sustained. They seemed much like Anushkas, painful but non-threatening. "Do we really need one of them alive?," He waved a hand towards the stone doorway that had appeared out of nowhere, prompting the urgent battle, "We've found the entrance."
Zuzana looked about the mountainside, looking for signs that other patrols had seen the fight. "Let's bring it with us for now, see if it is of any use," She nodded at Blagoje, who nodded back, "Blagoje carries until exceptions happen."
Zuzana walked up to the doorway, running a hand over the carvings. The script was angular and precise, each symbol easily distinguishable, but none of them told her anything. The material making up the doorway was a dark-brown rock which, now that she stood in front of it, stood out like a sore thumb on the side of the mountain. She was surprised they had not seen it clearly as they had ascended the path. Both the hard stone and the script must have been many hundreds of years old, and yet they were untouched by the passage of time.
"I am surprised we did not find this last time I was here." Varun too was examining the inscription, looking as impassioned as she had ever seen the usually-relaxed Ardent.
Velabahlekes voice came from behind her, sounding a little distracted. "Many legends about the Endless mention their myriad ways of concealing their sanctuaries from unwanted eyes. Most likely you can only see the entrance when you know where it actually is."
On an impulse, Zuzana turned in place, regarding each of her team-members in turn. Varun and Velabahleke seemed entranced by the supposed entrance to an Endless Vault. Anushka seemed nervous, her tattoos emanating a subtle blue light as she scanned the mountainside for porcelain-faced archers bearing down on them. Blagoje seemed his usual stoic self, working on piling the Cultist corpses besides the mysterious doorway. The one survivor had also quickly been thrown inside, bound at its hands and feet and gagged. Zuzana had never had seen one of the porcelain-creatures captive, but she suspected the gag was more for their own peace of mind than any practical use in silencing the creature.
"No need to linger out in full view," Anushka held her spear again, crossing the threshold into the stairway, "if this supposed vault is indeed hidden from plain sight, let us make use of that."
One by one, the group followed Anushka into the tunnel. Zuzana and Blagoje, being Vaulters, had no apprehension about walking into the close confines of the underground. The dark-skinned Velabahleke had the gleam of Dust in his eyes as he descended, but they did not conceal his disquiet entirely. Varun Kapur went in last, lighting a torch with a spark of blue flame. Walking in front, Anushka did the same. Blagoje carried the bound Cultist on his broad shoulders, following behind her. Zuzana hoped it had no way of contacting its allies from afar, or they would be besieged inside the tunnel. A situation the two Vaulters had been in before, but usually not as outnumbered and in tunnels designed defensibly. Beyond the doorway, the stairs were simply carved into the rock of the mountain, and like the doorway, showed little to no signs of wear and tear. The tunnel had been made for something taller than anyone in the group, so there was plenty of space. The inside was bereft of the symbols that had adorned the doorway, and simply descended for longer than their eyes could perceive beyond the torchlight. The group descended in silence for what felt like hours before Anushka stopped without a word, Blagoje almost blundering into her in surprise.
The Ardent woman held her torch out in front of her, sweeping it from side to side in order to fully show the situation in front of them. "A cave-in."
In front of Anushka, a cluster of massive boulders had completely blocked the tunnel. One would not need to be a Vaulter to know why; something had carved another tunnel going through the stairway at an angle.
Blagoje had lowered their captive to the ground while the group rested. When it came to matters of tunnels and underground hazards, neither Varun nor Anushka could hold a candle to the two Vaulters. "Ceratans." To answer Zuzanas questioning glance, he pointed to a series of pockmarks lining the edges of the various boulders blocking the tunnel.
"I am unfamiliar with these 'Ceratans'." As the two Vaulters examined the collapsed tunnel, Velabahleke stood behind them, observing how they worked.
Zuzana suspected that the dark-skinned man had never been underground before today. "Intellegent creatures who are half spider, half humanoid. They usually live in self-made tunnels underground," she ran her hand across the pockmarks, wondering just how big this colony was, "They are usually peaceful, but they don't like intruders in their colonies."
"Like us." Blagoje had lifted the Cultist again, preparing to move on.
Zuzana took out her crossbow again and checked her quiver. "The collapse is safe to cross. We'll follow the Ceratan tunnels down, hope they intersect with the Endless stairway further down. Alternative is going back out and hope the Cultists have not found the entrance."
The marching order resumed, except that Zuzana now walked slightly ahead of Anushka. Extinguishing the torches had been considered and promptly rejected. The torchlight made them far more visible in the darkness, but was also their only weapon against an ambush by the insectoids.
During the digging of tunnels and and construction of foundations for their own cities, Vaulters occasionally chanced upon ceratan colonies in warmer climates. On the battlefield they had little qualms about fighting in the open, but in defence of their own colonies, they were ambush fighters. Back in Zuzanas hometown of Vranzova soldiers had rarely died from the encounters, as colony-ceratans had no weapons beyond claws, mandibles and a venom called 'Rockblood' among the Vaulters. It was quite potent, but easily treatable given medical supplies. Supplies which the group did not have. Should they be attacked, a bite could well mean death for the individual.
The age of Ceratan tunnels, and thus the age of the colony, could usually be told by how smooth they were. New tunnels were rough, the path freshly made and bearing obvious signs of the tunnelling methods of the insectoids. Smooth tunnels were older, the colony having had time and resources to embellish their tunnels. Zuzana would have described the walls here as silky-smooth, had they not been made of rock. Smaller tunnels branched out from the one they followed, leading back along where they had come from or further down, and while they were smaller, they were still easily larger than any member of the group. Ceratans were large creatures, though flexible if need be. They could use the tunnels as shortcuts through the colony, or in this case, places from which they could attack the party and hide again. Should it happen, she would not want anyone to pursue. They were already in a dangerous position; no need to make it even more dangerous by splitting up. The group proceeded slowly through the insectoid tunnels, carrying their various weapons and means of illumination openly, hoping to deter conflict if possible. Time that felt like hours passed by as the group descended. Zuzana swore several times that she saw ceratans peek out from their hiding-tunnels. The others reported similar sightings, but no moves were made against them. So they went, an island of light descending through the darkness of the tunnels. When anyone spoke, it was in short sentences and hushed tones. Even the usually-verbose Velabahleke seemed cowed by the gloom all around them. Eventually, Zuzana could tell that the tunnel was curving back around, angling towards where the Endless stairway might be, were they at the correct depth to match up with it.
Despite the ever-present danger of ambush, neither Zuzana nor Blagoje had armed their crossbows. The weapons were out and their quivers open, but no bolt was actually loaded into the mechanism. So when there was a cry from the rear and a mass of hisses and screeching, they both reached for their quivers first. Behind them, a massive ceratan sporting red metal adornments to its fangs had dropped into the middle of their group, separating them from Velabahleke and Varun. The Ardent man had kept hold of his torch, his open fist gripping his curious claw-weapon. Velabahleke looked shaken, but he was still reaching for his shortbow. The weapon would not be terribly useful in the darkness of the tunnel. The click-noises of claws on stone erupted from the shadows around them, signaling the arrival of many more ceratans into the fight. Zuzana immediately dropped to her knee, sliding a bolt into her crossbow. As she quickly aimed and fired, the lighting behind her shifted, covering her target in her own shadow. Anushka had dropped her own torch to the floor, her titanium spear keeping 2 of the large creatures at bay. Blagoje had dropped the Cultist and loaded his crossbow, scanning the border of torchlight for any creatures daring to enter the already-chaotic fight.
Zuzana reloaded again, training her sights on the ceratan Varun was holding at bay with the torch. Her crossbow-bolt punched into its back, but the creature gave no sign of feeling the impact. One of its fangs darted forward, scraping past the Ardent man's guard. Barely dodged, the fang carved a furrow through Varuns left side. As he staggered a step backwards, a grin quickly spread across Varuns face, and the mans tattoos flared with a vivid blue colour. The ceratan could barely react as he scythed forwards with his own claw, nearly shearing the fang from the driders body. Its cry was shrill as it staggered away from the warlock, trying to keep its shattered limb away from the warlock. Zuzana could not observe the fight further as a smaller ceratan leapt at her, fangs and mandibles extended. She rolled under it, dust blowing past her from its impact where she had been a moment before. She spun around, dropping her crossbow to the ground and drawing her axe. The drider spun in place to face her, raising its fangs and standing as tall as it could on its spidery legs. Taking the time to intimidate cost it dearly, as Blagoje put a crossbow bolt in its back. It staggered forwards and Zuzana swung her axe, the titanium blade sinking to the hilt into its chest. It screeched weakly as it sunk to the tunnel floor. Ripping the axe from its chest, she stood to survey the fight. Blagoje was bludgeoning a ceratan with his studded club in one hand and its fangs grasped roughly in his other. Velabahleke was firing arrows around the edges of the torchlight, keeping more ceratans at bay.
While the insectoid creatures that had not yet joined the fight seemed reluctant to enter the circle of light created by the torches, out beyond the light they still had them completely surrounded on all sides. Zuzana retrieved her crossbow, thankful that they at least could not have the high ground. As she finished that thought, she looked up, a horrible feeling settling in her gut. She saw the driders clinging to stalactites above them a heartbeat before their sticky webbing shot downwards, ensnaring both her, Blagoje and Velabahleke, weighing them down and immobilising them. Ceratans around the tunnel screeched, their spider-like legs clattering on the floor as they moved to join the fight. Where moments before it had been going heavily in the groups favour, now the ceratans had almost certainly won, with the majority of the group incapacitated. Varun and Anushka still stood, separated and surrounded by an ever-growing swarm of ceratans.
Varun had dropped his torch to use both his weapons, dodging and swaying, punching and kicking to fight off the insectoids. The big drider that had started the battle still stood, savagely attacking him with its remaining fang, now supported by a dozen of its smaller fellows. Varun was a cunning fighter, but he could not hold the onslaught for long. 2 of the smaller driders knocked him to the floor in front of the larger ceratan, who with a mocking slowness reached down and bit him in the shoulder with its venomous mandibles, the Ardents scream echoing through the darkening tunnel.
Zuzana saw no other way out. She preferred not to call on her friends secret when a stranger would see it, but the alternative was death. "Anushka!," whirling her spear in circles to ward the ceratans off, Anushka briefly glanced in her direction, "We don't have a choice, we need the Flame!".
Varuns scream stopped, and Anushkas expression took on a pained look, her eyes closing. Her tattoos burst into a radiant blue light, far brighter than the sputtering torches on the floor. A ceratan charging towards her immediately burst into blue flames, the magical fire eating away at its flesh far quicker than any normal flame could. As the smaller ceratans retreated in the face of this new development, the large drider strode forward, blood dripping from its mandibles. Anushka slowly ascended, her bare feet leaving the ground. The driders hiding among the stalactites were preparing another volley, but they did not have time to bring their attack to bear. With a scream that reverberated through the tunnel, great coils of flame exploded outwards from Anushkas form, incinerating any ceratan they came across. Panic immediately spread among the smaller creatures as they were consumed by magical flames, but the largest of them still strode forward, undaunted. As Anushka slowly opened her eyes again, blue-and-turquoise flames flickering across her gaze, the drider stabbed its remaining fang towards her. It never hit its mark as Anushkas fiery gaze blasted it across the tunnel, reducing its form to ashes in seconds. The remainder of the ceratans were either smoldering corpses or running for their lives. The snaring web that had coated Zuzana and the two others had withered away, reduced to wispy strands of grey material. As she rose to shake it off, it turned to ash.
The clattering of running ceratans slowly stopped and silence descended on the tunnel. As the group picked itself up and shook off the remaining ash from the webs, Anushka slowly floated down, the blue flames vanishing completely as her toes touched the ground. Zuzana caught her as she stumbled, keeping her standing.
Anushka groaned, "Shuksin, you talk to the trader. My head is killing me." The Ardent woman accepted her spear from Zuzana, her other arm across the Vaulter womans shoulders.
Zuzana nodded in reponse. "Don't worry, of course I will," She looked around the now-empty tunnel, "Once we are out of these tunnels."
Across the circle of light, Varun slowly got to his feet, then collapsed into a sitting position. He chuckled, the sound punctuated by coughs as Blagoje looked him over. The warlock was covered in smaller cuts and scrapes, but the large bite-wound on his neck was turning a nasty green colour. A waterskin was quickly produced and the wound was washed, but the unhealthy pallor was still spreading.
Blagoje did not look up from his ministrations as Zuzana and Anushka hobbled over to them. "Rockblood. Can't cure this here."
Zuzana knelt slowly next to Blagoje, making sure Anushka could keep up with the movement. "You help Varun, Blagoje," she slyly looked over at Velabahleke, trying to gauge the traders reaction to how the fight had been ended, "We need to keep moving. We can see to our wounds once we're out of these bloody tunnels."
Their captive was transferred to Velabahleke as Blagoje virtually had to carry the wounded Varun away from the battlefield. Occasionally they saw a ceratan or two hiding in side-tunnels or among the stalactites in the ceiling, but they hid themselves away on being spotted. Following the largest tunnel when there was a split, they eventually found another collapse, the stairway supposedly leading to the Endless vault continuing further into the mountain. The boulders had only partially blocked the descending part of the stairway, making for a narrow and defensible chokepoint. Zuzana was not even sure a ceratan would be able to fit through, but she still put Blagoje on watching the foot-wide crack, crossbow ready and loaded this time. Varun and Anushka were sat on the floor, wounds bandaged and given water. Zuzana lit two torches, placing one on the steps in front of the wounded and tossing one further down the steps. No surprises this time. The trader was given the enviable task of staring into the gloom beyond the torches, bow ready should anything come at them. She sat herself in front of Varun and Anushka, looking over their various injuries one more time. The lighting in the stairway was about the same as the tunnel, but the tension was noticeably lighter. Anushka did not have any serious external injuries, but was clutching her head, eyes shut. She had emptied her waterskin almost immediately. Varun, on the other hand, seemed very relaxed considering the severe bite-wound in his neck and the slowly-spreading venom evidenced by the pallor expanding across his torso. The skin that had not yet turned a sickly green was becoming a vivid red, and his skin was incredibly hot to the touch. Against the red of his skin, the orange of the torch and the green of the venom, his tattoos and scars glowed a flickering blue.
Zuzana had washed and bandaged the bite as best she could, but without the antidote she was powerless to combat the venom. "I'm sorry Kapur, we don't have the antidote for their venom."
Varun wiped the sweat from his brow. It was running into his eyes. "The Ardent Fire cleanses more than just my foes. My pain will yet see me through." His voice sounded strained.
A tattooed hand reached over and grabbed his waterskin. Varun did not resist. Anushka drank what was left in the skin in a few big gulps. "I would gladly swap for your rockblood, Varun, if I had the choice," She opened her eyes. They were bloodshot, but it did not seem to inhibit her, "The fireache is no pain for an Ardent."
By now, the pallor on Varuns skin was covering most of his torso, but it seemed to be slowing. Zuzana was willing to bet that if they removed the torches, the Ardent man's tattoos would light up the area entirely on their own. His breathing was slowing too, down from a ragged pace to something more regular.
Unable to do anything about Varun's condition and knowing Anushka would recover on her own, Zuzana stood up. She grabbed her unloaded crossbow from the wall by the torch and went to stand next to Velabahleke. The trader held his bow in one hand and a nocked arrow in the other, his pose relaxed as he kept the watch. "Seen anything?"
Velabahleke gave her a brief look before returning his eyes to the gloom. "You would know if I had, trust me, Lady Shuksin."
"No need to call me Lady," Zuzana grabbed a bolt from her quiver and loaded the crossbow, "If you really need a title, you can call me Sergeant."
Velahbahlekes voice suggested that he was still a little shaken by the events in the ceratan colony. "Lady or not, you certainly hold some curious company, Sergeant Shuksin."
"I know Blagoje doesn't speak much, but I assure you-"
Velabahleke had returned his arrow to his own quiver and leant against the far wall of the stairway. "You know I am not referring to your stoic companion. Lady Enlai is the only woman I have ever seen who is able to create a veritable bonfire without the use of copious amounts of firewood and fuel."
Zuzana tried not to sound defensive. "What of it?"
The trader was still looking down the stairway descending into the mountain. "Last I heard, only the armies of the Ardent Fire knew the secrets to their magic."
"Anushka has her reasons," Zuzana sat down on the steps, "Suffice to say that we do not want them known outside our group."
The trader scratched at his dark beard. "I wonder what one could obtain by sharing such a secret."
"One could lose his life, and worse, the contents of a vault undoubtedly full of ancient relics."
A moment passed, then Velabahleke grinned, the gesture seeming slightly forced. "Let us say it will be a, how you say, bonus to your contract then."
Zuzana returned the grin, though only outwardly. "Can we get that in writing?"
Velabahleke walked forwards and extended a hand. "I will talk to Elder Pashang upon our return," Zuzana shook his hand, "merchant's honour."
"I wonder how you would word that in a legal document," Anushka joined them. She looked better, and she was no longer clutching her head, "Will not reveal Anushka Enlais secret to the world."
Velabahleke chuckled at that. "I believe it is within my people's capability to be a little more subtle than that, Lady Enlai."
Zuzana was glad to see Anushka on her feet again. She hated having to resort to Anushkas abilities in a fight, but she had seen no other options. "How's Varun?"
The Ardent lowered her voie. "He will be fine, eventually. But I cannot say how long that will take. He can move on his own, but he cannot fight for some time."
Zuzana nodded, relieved. Rockblood was potent stuff, and they were without the antidote. It seemed the peculiar abilities of the Ardent mages had saved them twice this day.
The impromptu camp was quickly broken up, torches and captive distributed and their descent continued. This time, it seemed like they had scarcely resumed their journey before the scenery changed. The stairway ended, widening into a large half-oval room. Sconses for torches were set in 5 meter intervals along the walls, and the same carved angular letters that had adorned the doorway were present all along the walls of the chamber. The far wall from the stairway, however, was vastly different. Unlike the rest of the walls, this was vertical and flat, and made of some dark-purple nearly-translucent material streaked with veins of Dust-gold.
Zuzana suspected that the wall cut the room in half. Considering the dimensions of this half, the full room would be massive. Adorning the crystal wall were several vast objects, visible even through the darkness that filled the chamber. The group began igniting their torches, filling as many of the sconses as they could. Even with half of their supply lit up, they could not even fill half the sconses. The objects were large and rounded, created with various materials. They all had holes at irregular intervals, but always 2. Upon closer examination, she could not find any evidence of wear or tear, nor any markings of tool use. One was covered in soot, but the actual object was undamaged. Whoever had made these was an expert craftsman.
"No treasures." Blagoje broke the silence. While most of the group were examining the crystal wall, he was looking at the stairway behind them, crossbow loaded and ready.
Velabahleke was running a finger along the Dust seams of the crystal wall. "This must be some antechamber, perhaps a security measure."
Anushka was examining each of the objects on the wall in turn. "These remind me of masks, just really massive ones."
Varun was sitting on the hostage, cupping his hands around his eyes to peer through the wall. "Some groups wear masks. Dorgeshi, delvers. None of them are nearly as big as this, though."
The masks, or whatever they were, unsettled Zuzana. They reminded her of something, she just couldn't place it.
Varun had stood up and was cracking his knuckles. "Guess we need to find a way to get through this wall." With that, Varun slammed his fist-weapon into the wall, scratching the material and breaking off a finger-digit sized piece.
The whole group tensed as the small chunk of crystal clattered to the floor. When a moment had passed with no immediate changes in the room, everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
"What were you thinking!?" Anushka shouted, glaring at her fellow Ardent. "What if it had triggered a trap?"
The scarred warlock shrugged. "Then we would have managed."
Zuzana lowered her crossbow. She had reflexively drawn it when Varun had struck the wall. "I appreciate the confidence, Varun, but don't do that again. We have dealt with traps before, but I have no idea what kind of traps or devices you would find in a vault created by the Endless."
Velabahleke was not paying much attention to their little debate. He was rolling the crystal chunk between his hands, examining it. "I have never seen anything quite like this."
Anushka scoffed. "Been in many Endless vaults?"
The trader seemed not to notice the tone of voice. For the first time since they had entered the mountains, he seemed at least a little in his element. "In my time, I have visited a few sites with possible ties to the Endless, but this green crystal is a first," He ran a finger across the materials surface where it had broken from the wall, "It reminds me of blood crystal, but obviously a different colour and much more durable."
While everyone spoke, Blagoje had retrieved a maul from his pack. He seemed to be simply awaiting orders. "Think it's valuable?"
Velabahleke put the crystal chunk away, depositing it in his backpack. "Potentially, depends on its applications. Best not to damage the deposit more than we need to pass through."
The group retrieved a few of the torches from the sconses, pulled the hostage further back and stood back, leaving Blagoje alone next to the wall. Zuzana nodded at him, and the he swung the maul, smashing a hole through the crystal. Beyond the maul breaking the crystal, there was no noise or motion, but everyone still cowered, waiting for signs of anything activating. When again nothing happened, the group slowly went over to the new hole, peering through into the remainder of the chamber beyond.
Zuzanas suspicions had been correct; the rest of the chamber followed the curvature of this side, making for a cavernous chamber beyond the crystal wall. Excepting the floor, which was absent further in. The chamber must continue further into the mountain or back onto the surface, for a significant amount of wind was rushing through the opening in the wall, bringing with it the scents of soot and dirt. But that was where normality ended in the chamber beyond. A sphere of various elements was floating in the middle of the chamber. A mound of rock and dirt floated next to a body of pure water. Opposite the floating water was a conflagration of red and orange flames. The final part was a storm, its fierce winds flying about the chamber. None of the parts seemed to really touch the others; the water, as far as they could see over the distance, was completely clear of sediment, and the flames seemed undisturbed by the gales whipping back and forth immediately next to it. Circling all of these were great bands of Dust surrounding the sphere, but like the elements that it was composed of, it bore no stain or impurity.
Silence had fallen over the group as they each took in what they had found.
At first, from the void, came the shape.
The voice had not been loud but had carried easily through the chamber. All but Velabahleke swivelled in place, scanning the room for signs of the newcomer.
Within that shape, continents rose up from the seas…
…And within those continents, the regions were created.
The curious porcelain-skin of the Cultist was glowing with gold, the seams of its armour flowing with Dust. Whatever it was saying, the voice was clearly coming from it.
"Why is that thing talking now?" Anushka growled, her spear appearing in her hands.
Then the regions were covered by desert, and forest, and grassland…
…And by hills and mountains that rose up to give my face a form…
…And the lands grew wetter or drier as the rivers carved their way.
A noise behind Zuzana made her turn in place again. On the wall, the great masks were also now glowing with Dust, and all of them but one bore marks of a further element. The mask with the soot marks now sparkled with red embers, looking as if it might burst into flame at any moment. It took her a moment before she identified the source of the noise. Velabahleke was changing; his tattoos had vanished, replaced with what seemed like small rivers of pure water flowing across his dark skin. As he looked towards her, she saw his eyes had become small orbs of water as well.
From beneath the crust of my skin precious resources thrust up.
"I'll silence it. I'm not even sure why we brought it." Varuns voice sounded strange behind her, as if he was talking through a great gale. She recoiled from the horrible sight of Velabahleke, bumping into a large shape that could only be Blagoje. His skin felt rough against hers, like touching dry dirt.
Lesser species as well evolved and ranged across me…
…And as all of these lived and grew and died and they left their traces.
There was a clatter of metal behind her. Zuzana barely dared look behind, and almost instantly regretted it. Anushkas titanium spear was on the ground, and the Ardent woman was staring at her hands, scratching at her scars as they burst into flame, rapidly changing Anushkas form into one of pure fire.
Lastly, for my children, I sowed places where my bounties could be easily reaped:
Bounties in minerals, in magics, in the wealth of the soil…
…Only then, were my children seeded upon it.
Blagoje seemed as uncertain as she, backing away from the others and their transformations, heedless of the rocky texture his skin was taking on. His already-impressive form was growing as his flesh turned to rock, his cries of terror echoing through the chamber like a rockslide.
And then nothing remained but to wait, to hope.
The chamber was now filled with the transforming bodies or her comrades, their screams filling the air. Zuzana looked over to Varun who had ascended, his fading legs surrounded by a tornado-gale and a noise like a storm as he too began screaming at the sight of his new form.
So the void became the shape…
…And the shape became the land…
…And the land became rich…
…And all of that is me.
A moment passed, and the chamber fell silent. Her comrades had ceased their screams, and as one had turned to look at her, their eyes transformed into orbs of fire, water, pure iron and thunderclouds. She knew not what to do or how to react, and then they shifted their gaze, looking at something behind her.
The masks on the wall had vanished, all but one. The mask free of any elemental signs was left, bands of purest Dust encircling it and filling its eyes. She need see no mortal eye to know the creature inhabiting the mask was looking at her. She heard a voice in her mind. Zuzana did not understand the tongue, but somehow her mind deciphered it instantly.