Olivier was torn on which way to look. Ahead, he could see the black sandy shore of Palridian, still lost to the darkness of night. He was only able to tell them apart from the water by how it sloshed on its beach, leaving the sand almost like glass, shimmering with a thousand colors, while behind he could watch such beauty rise into the sky, water sent flying by the engines of the Zephyrian glider caught in the rays of dawn, sending long, spiraling lashes across the warming bed of water, all of it magnified by his sheer joy and excitement, painting his eyes green and blue.
A bit of yellow touched his vision as the glider rumbled. It was so sudden, but Olivier saw why as he looked down. The water had become shallow, and now the engines were churning the sand as well. When they hit dry land, dry sand, it left long gouts of glass, true glass, to sparkle in the dawn, but the glider didn’t slow nor did it yield. It blazed across the sands and beyond, burning a path through the plains that laid beyond. Tall mountains stood far and away, but the way Gwen egged it on, there was no doubt that was their destination.
Olivier wondered about her a moment. He pondered how much had she done this that she didn’t even bat an eye, not at the beauty around them, the yards upon yards of wild flowers that scattered from their passing, left to swirl and burn after. She didn’t even seem to notice the birds rising off to the south, from the forest just a stone’s throw away from the sea, singing their songs for the new day, nor at the sudden shifts. They had hit a lake; water rose ahead and cascaded over, as if they had bore a tunnel through, and hissed and steamed on the engines behind, yet she didn’t even shake her head. She didn’t even blink.
He questioned if he should ask her, if he should talk to her at all, but the focus, the sheer intensity of her gaze squelched his tongue. Instead, he looked onward, at the mountains and the forest, and couldn’t help but wonder. How much further was his “home”? Were they close? He remembered there being a field and a lake in between his home and the beach (he ran it enough, after all, trying to get away from the other children), but Palridian was a big continent.
“Do you think we’re close to Terra?” He blurted, and gasped, realizing his mistake. Yellow touched the edges of his vision, even more as the glider slowed, almost to a stop. Stupid! Why do I always screw everything up? I-
′Should be just a touch northwest from here,′ she thought. ‘You’re talking about the Capitol for the Discples of the Earth Mothers, right?’
“Y... yeah... I think, anyways.”
‘Do you have a history with them?’
“Sort of... My mother was a Page for them. I was born and guided by Lady Naomei until my eleventh birthday. When... when my mother... I left soon after. I went to Carapai to live with my dad... Heh... you know, at one point I thought he was a prince. Because my mom told me he was. She had a ‘royal guide’ and all when... down here on her... I’m sorry. You probably don’t want to hear any of this.”
‘It’s fine. I find you rather interesting.’
“M-me? N-n-no. I’m... I’m nobody.” He cleared his throat, hoping that he could remove that foot out of his mouth at some point, but that seemed to be her cue to push the throttle again. They had gone silence once more, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable silence, not like the ones he did have back “home”, with his mother, with Lady Naomei. There was always a pressure on him then, always something watching, waiting to pounce on him, and it only compounded when he was forced to enter Terra’s Clergy Dome. He could see it, even now, burned into his memory with such vivid strokes. He could feel its soft, clay benches under him, see its bright, red ceiling shining like a thousand gemstones in the daylight, coalescing up to a single dot opened to the heavens to allow light to shine down onto the mossy pew. Outside, during dawn or dusk, the great dome would wash the town in a bright, red veil, but it was never uncomfortable, as if the veil, itself, cooled whatever it touched. Why, even remembering it returned the scent of fresh bread, baking from Mister Baeland’s little corner, nestled against the southern stone wall that surrounded the town.
He sighed, and tensed a little as he started to rock off the glider. He had been looking left, almost wistfully at the forest, but he was not looking at it. He was staring at the stone wall, at Mister Baeland’s nook, making his stomach rumble and his heart ache for that small solace he once knew, but it would go disappointed as the mountains overtook the the green, with no gray stone nor red dome in sight.
Olivier almost yelped as the glider came to a stop, instead coming out as a pained wince. Gwen dismounted, waited for him to do the same, and held out her hand. He wondered if she wanted him to take it, but her gaze was beyond him, still on the vehicle as it burst into light once more. It hummed softly as it floated towards her open hand, shrinking, returned to the tiny diamond it started out as. She pocketed it on one of the bags on her belt, hidden against the sheer volume of daggers still there, and looked at him. Only then did it occurred to him that she was taller than him. Though it was only an inch and could be argued that it was her hair, it was still no small feat, especially for a female of the children of clay. Most males couldn’t even reach seven foot.
“Why did we stop,” he asked at last, if only to make the silence between them comfortable again. He hadn’t realized it, but she had been looking him over, too, an act that never set well. Red, and even a touch of black, had seeped into his vision as her gaze roved over him, gone as she turned around. She headed for a small opening in the mountain, an alcove that would have still escaped him even if he was truly looking for it. The shadows seemed to flatten it, made it look like the rest, yet she was certain of her footing, slipping in while still ever facing forward. She made it seem so sinfully simple as rocks, briers, and even bone bit and scraped at Olivier. It was a tight fit for sure, sometimes so tight it was a wonder she made it through, given her physique, but she managed without even a huff or a pant, while he was more than ready to ask for respite before the path even showed itself.
But they made it. The narrow opening had given way to a dusty path, leading to a set of rickety doors simply wedged into the entrance of a cave. Torches burned on either side, yet the grime, the cobwebs around them surely meant that no one had bothered it for a long, long time.
He tried to take one, and the wood splintered in his hands. They stabbed into the suckers while their metal cradle that held the fire at bay simply rusted away, leaving the embers to be taken on the breeze that whispered through the tiny valley. He whimpered as he pulled each one out, but Gwen wasn’t bothered, throwing open both doors, clattering into the dank cave beyond. Smoke rose from inside, fires crackling deep within, flames that Olivier would not bother, simply following into the darkness.
“What are we looking for in here, anyways?” Olivier whispered, biting his lip as it became a rumbling boom. It echoed off the jagged floor, the ragged ceiling, and the maze of corridors that spanned before them.
Gwen stopped, and, once more, that silent pressure pressed against Olivier’s mind. There was no delay this time on understanding, though, as there wasn’t before.
’Supposedly, there’s some incredibly rare loot here,’ she thought, rooted in place before the corner to the next path. ’This used to be hidey hole for the Dread Pirate Baro, the meanest, cruelest Aceon who ever lived.’
“I’ve heard of Baro. I used to work by the port, so how couldn’t I hear the tales? He truly was a monster, he and his first mate, the great and terrible Nejrat.” He shuddered, and found himself holding his arms. His suckers slurped against them, the right still trickling blood, pattering away as yellow continued to creep into his vision. “Supposedly, they hunted down and sunk dozens, if not hundreds, of Terra Force ships, manning the terrible Scylla.” He shuddered again at uttering its name, and even the cave refused to let it bound, leaving it to die on the air, as it should.
If this is really one of his hideouts...
He hugged himself tighter as he followed after again, delving deeper into the embrace of the mountain, into intimate corners that Terra did not make for her children, penetrating Mortuim like she never expected them to. Rocks clacked and threatened to fall, grumbling in their wake. Water dripped in the distance, shimmering in the air a moment as they gathered on those looming teeth before speckling on the jowls below, closing in as they continued to follow the caves.
They never did find the Dread Pirate Baro, he thought, shivering, though the air was warm, almost muggy. They never found him or his skipper. They simply... disappeared one day. What if they were waiting in one of their hideouts, waited for themselves to become myth before rising again? What if, down below, they and their crew of the damned were waiting to gut and wear them, to go out among society again and spread the prophecy of their return? What i-
He cried out as he ran into Gwen, stopped once more, this time before another set of molding, rotten pair of doors. These had six torches around them, two crossed in the middle, adorned with an Arthrogon skull. Though time had stripped its inside to a rotting, gray mush that hung in its pincer-like mouth, the chitin still shined as new as the day it was hanged. The subtle yellows were brought out of the deep, green shell by the torchlight. Its eyes, at least their covers, were a mesh of hard, yet flexible, carapace, a soft shade of red that once housed hundreds, thousands of compact lenses, now empty, a honeycomb without bees to fill it.
As Gwen threw the doors open, the gray matter slopped out of its mouth, landing just behind as she stepped through and leaving its jaws to creak gently, free of their burden at last. Those red ridges were still marred by the gray stain, dripping, slopping onto the muck that laid below... Olivier shook his head, finally pulling his gaze away from it, and followed her into the chamber beyond.
Tables lined the walls, torches keeping it lit, four to every one, spread far, far down the hall. The ceiling was chiseled smooth, allowing thick, iron chandeliers to be hung. Smoke choked most of their light as they creaked gently in the soft wind that had followed them. Rich, red and orange rugs flowed across the floor, dust rising in each step, muffling their strides as they made their way to the door at the far end, a thick, red, metal door. Whatever was still here had to be behind the door; only rotten food remained on the tables, blackened to the point not even flies would want it, with the occasional bit of parchment still clinging to life. One dissolved just under Olivier’s gaze, reminding him to simply keep moving forward, stopped when Gwen did.
She grabbed the handle, a greened, copper knob, and gave it three quick turns, back, forth, then back again.
‘Locked,’ she thought, and crouched. She fished into her belt again, and retrieved a lockpick. It ground and scraped inside with such finesse, such speed and skill, that it popped open within seconds, opened with a grand clack.
Gwen took a step back, almost bumping into Olivier, and the door swung in to show a large chest sitting in the middle of the room. Like the hall before it, the room was covered in red-and-orange rugs, lit by chandeliers, though the one hanging above was silver, instead, matching the throne at the back of the room.
She rushed into the room and knelt before that chest, while Olivier didn’t feel comfortable going towards the box. Instead, he paced the room and looked at the tables. These ones were covered in iron lockboxes, pried open long ago, emptied of all but cobwebs. At least they seemed to fit. The golden box clashed with everything in the room.
Olivier heard a grand clack again, heard the hinges of the chest creak and how she rummaged through it, ending with a both a verbal and thoughtful groan.
‘It was only three gold and old boots,’ she thought. That piqued his interest. He walked over, and picked up the boots. Indeed, they were very old. The leather was almost gray, though some of the original tan could be seen, especially around the cusps for the legs. He held them to his feet, just the perfect size, and put them on, thankful that the insides were still rather pristine. He put on the other one, and jumped a touch, hearing them clack, but they didn’t rip nor shred, meaning they were the best boots he had. Olivier chuckled a little, and only realized she was watching him, still as a statue once more.
“I’m sorry,” he said, rubbing his shell, and felt a bit of pink rise in his eyes. “I kind of been needing a pair of shoes. I mean, I’m used to walking on stone and such barefoot, but a good pair of boots goes a long... I mean, if you want them-
‘You can have them. This is both weird yet awesome. I’ve never seen anything like you.’
His cheeks burned at that. Like you, he thought, grimacing at it, and hung his head as he took a step back.
Right into a table.
Something clicked from the force, and the throne at the back of the room slid to the side. The wall groaned behind. Dust billowed as it rose, showing another path. Gwen wasted no time, heading down it, while Olivier wasn’t sure if he should just leave now. After all, he was but another sight for her to gawk at, to watch for entertainment. She didn’t really care about him, and now, now that he had shown her the way to greater treasure, he could simply leave, their debt repaid. In full.
However, another thought surfaced, one that didn’t seem to be his. After all, he was usually meek, not wanting nor needing anything, but now he wanted to go down there. He did come all this way, so what would be the harm?
He already heard scraping and grinding again, repeated time and again, booming, the beat to the great clacks of the chest below, and that gave his feet wind. He entered that path, following it around as it spiraled down, and saw that it was a simple, gray stone room at the bottom. Only three torches lit it, each for the cylinder walls, shimmering off dozens of chests, all circling the room. The room, itself, seemed to go deeper, as well, large steps carved into it, fourteen levels in all, each one getting darker, as if approaching the depths of the Dark Ones. At the very bottom was a long chest, as dark as the stone it sat upon, as if it was carved out of it. Gwen was only on the sixth level so far. The levels before all opened, gleaming with treasure.
Her lockpick went still a moment.
‘You the man!’ She thought. ‘Go ahead and pick whatever you want. I might just keep you around longer. This is so cool!’
He was filled with an odd sense of pride yet disgust. He had never felt more like he belonged, like he was accepted, and yet used, little more than a tool. That feeling still held as he went to each chest, always three or four behind as she continued to open them, and looked through them. The first thing he found was a new pair of pants. They were fine fur leggings, complementing what was left of his hemp shorts as he tied them taut, and in the next chest found a shirt. He passed on it, though; the rumple was uncomfortable. Thankfully, there was a simple, green tunic in the next, and even a pair of thick, leather gloves. There was an assortment of weaponry, but why would he have need of that? He wasn’t fighter. He didn’t even know how to cut twine.
At last, they came to the great chest in the middle. She tried to use her lockpick on it, but it was for naught, snapping in its “lock.” It really was stone. She righted as she stepped back, and became like stone again, the pressure returned to his head.
′So what can we do here?′ She thought.
“You’re asking me? I don’t know.” He stammered, hummed, mulled as he rounded the box, his brow aching from the pressure, feeling it upon him as he leaned over it. He tried to nudge it, and was surprised, for being solid stone, to find that it was rather light. “We can carry it out and try to open it elsewhere?”
‘Eh. Too much work.’
“Then I don’t know... Sorry.”
’Oh well. We got at least a good bit of loot from this. There will always be more.′
She spun to the chests, picked out what she wanted, and made for the door all before Olivier had time to move. He simply stared at that chest, wondering what he could do, how he could prove his worth, show that he was not just lucky. He felt along the box, pulled off his gloves, let his suckers feel even more, finding something, anything that could... be...
“I have an idea,” he said, jumping from the power behind it, and pressed his hand firm on the top of the box. He waited, groaned, winced as his back ached from the weird angle, but, with great patience, he righted himself... and the chest stayed on his hand. He smiled as he skipped up the stairs to the back wall, and pushed his hand against it, needing less force as he left his boots behind, slurping and popping up it to the domed top. He looked down, making sure he was right over the center, and held the chest over. The room echoed with each pop of his suckers, letting go, one by one, until, with one, last, slurp, it fell. It slammed, cracked, and shattered apart.
He made his way back down, and had the biggest smile on his face as Gwen met him by the debris, picking through it... taking his smile with it. “It... it was... empty.”
Gwen stood, and the silent pressure returned.
‘Seems so,’ she thought. ‘Don’t be down, though! That was awesome!’
“Y... you think? I mean, of course you do, but I simply wished it would have paid off.”
‘There’s always next time... wait. You think I’m thinking all this?’
“Yes? Wait. Then what are y-”
All the chests in the room slammed shut.
The torches roared, fighting against the wind that shrieked through the room, swirling towards the broken chest. The pieces were picked up by the squall, pieced back together, returned to its pristine condition once more before the wind placed it back in its place.
It clicked open.
The lid groaned as it lurched open. Darkness spilled like fog over the edges. Lights, lightning crackled through it as it rose from the chest, reaching out.
He gasped, fell back, and tried so hard to scamper away, but it had lunged for him, grabbed him by the right arm. Energy burned at his skin, warping, burning it purple as red lines pierced it, snaking their way up, up to his shoulder and chest.
He reached back, panting, crying out.
“H-help! Gwen!” He shrieked, sobbing as he tried to pull away. The darkness snared his left leg next, reeling him in that much quicker, but it growled as he managed to grab her leg. She was still simply standing there, staring off, unfazed. “Help! Please!”
He groaned, exclaimed as his shoulder popped, but managed to find the strength to swing his tainted arm to grab her. She screamed, still standing there, rooted as the darkness swarmed her instead. She simply stayed there, as a statue, screeching, gagging as it slithered down her throat, completely forgetting Olivier. It picked her up, guided her through the air so... lazily, and swallowed her into the chest.
It slammed shut, leaving him with only the sounds of his whimpers. He looked down at his arm, and shuddered, seeing it still purple. The red lines were still there, pulsing, and realized that was the only light in the room. All the torches were out, none even seen above, not a glint of light to be had in that darkness.
“What... was that?” He whispered, dying before his lips, but dared not stay another moment by that chest. He gathered his boots, threw on his gloves... and even took one of the weapons left behind on the ground, one of the items Gwen was going to take. It was a long sword, Terrahn made, a double-sided blade with a cross hand guard. It had a black leather grip and a steel, sphere pommel. Very simple, especially for Terrahn craftsmanship, but, though it was so simple, it still felt foreign as he slung it over his shoulder, pulling the black sheathe as tight as he could against him, fighting against his shakes.
He lumbered up the stairs, and gave the chest one last, cold look. Though it was lost to the darkness, he could still see it, outlined against the circles, the levels of darkness they had delved, now spanning above as well. As if it had escaped. As if he had helped it escape. He had his path now, his goal finally clear. Fate had finally given him his true purpose, in the most unorthodox way possible.
“I will find out what you are,” he said, little more than a whisper. “I will. You will see, you hear? I owe it to Gwen... again. I will save her, and stop whatever you are!”
Even to him, that felt corny, too big for him to say, but, at long last, he had purpose. He had determination in his step, making quick work of the caves and coming out back to the sun, warming his tiny little valley at last, his dawn of a new life. However, even in that light he could see the shadow that now loomed, that he knew he must stop. This was only the beginning.