Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
It didn’t take long to make my way back inside the mines. With my Veil on, the Tingins didn’t question why I’d returned, and I didn’t bother them as I made my way down the winding shafts. I went with my senses taut, straining to catch any sign of the Ketri as I filtered out the guttering torches. By the time I reached the collapsed shaft that marked the end of the Tingins’ mining operations, the crumbled wall speared with shattered beams, I’d found nothing new. Only the ghosts of the fragmented aura, like rings from mugs on the feasting table, grimed my spiritual fingertips.
I turned to go and, as I did, felt something brush my shoulder. Not a draft, because the torches told me which way the air was flowing, not a miner, and certainly not the Kydonian tiger. A strange crack in the stone that Malia and I had somehow missed suddenly seemed clear as daylight, a dark fissure that contoured itself to the curve of the rock wall. I would’ve called it camouflaged if it weren’t for the utter disarray in the tunnel’s structure caused by the collapse.
My breath caught as I reached for the cleft. Cold pricked my fingers, lancing my palm as my hand moved through viscous air. The world around me warped as something sucked me through the chink.
Blurring darkness swirled and then spat me out. I stumbled to my knees in a cavern awash with iridescent sparkles. In the middle of the chamber, a shallow pool reflected the moon, despite no shafts anywhere in the ceiling to let the night sky through. But this room didn’t seem to care much for the laws of reality.
Across the room, casting no reflection in the pool, stood a pair of columns. Flanked by those columns was an inset door, carved with such monstrous creatures as walked the earth with the elder gods, but of a wholly alien array. The lower half held aquatic beasts, while the upper displayed creatures of land and sky.
Derketo, far more feral and raw than those we’d clashed with in Aenea swam amongst long-necked sea monsters, dwarfed by bulbous creatures with wide flippers and clouded eyes. Below them all, churning the depths, rested a massive dragon with a serpentine tail and a beautiful woman’s face carved in place of a draconic head. Although the depiction didn’t convey how terrible she was in the flesh, this could only be Tamiyat.
Above, a host of scorpion half-men, human upper bodies sprouting from massive scorpion bodies in place of arachnoid heads, guarded the coast under the watchful gaze of six eldritch beasts. A six-headed ram, a wooly man with bull legs and horns, a two-legged snake with eagle wings and head, a desiccated corpse with canines protruding past its lower jaw, an elephant-sized hound, and a dragon with star-studded clouds for wings—all arrayed in a semi-circle around what would have been the focal point of the relief. Instead, the image had been defaced, deep gouges criss-crossing the absence. While I could understand the hatred for even the symbol of the Sea Mother’s mate, I couldn’t shake the irritation at losing the chance to get a glimpse of his form.
That annoyance lessened slightly when I got closer to the door and realized that something outside hadn’t clawed it out, something from within had destroyed it. The grooves had been formed by some force bursting through, although not a pebble remained on the floor in evidence of this passage.
But the imagery made the door’s purpose clear: this could only be the passageway to the cell that held Tamiyat’s companion.
He hadn’t escaped, however. The door was too intact—and we were too alive—for that to have happened. Jade had broken free from this hold herself, but she’d never mentioned ruining the portal. Not only that, but the damage was near the lintel, not on the lower portion. While space didn’t always function according to reason between dimensions, it still felt odd that the defacement would have occurred so high up.
Chills tickled my spine. I was being watched.
In the soft blue light, diffused from the not-moon of the pool, I hadn’t paid close attention to the composition of the walls. At a passing glance, they’d looked like stone, and I’d taken them as such. Probably foolish, in hindsight, given the abnormal nature of my entrance.
Bristling on the walls, like a pinecone turned inside out, hung dozens upon dozens of the scorpion creatures from the relief. With their tails embedded in the stone, they lay like scales upon each other, faces blank in their suspended sleep. Dark, bushy hair curled from their scalps around their throats, forming manes with the follicles that were thicker than reeds. The plating that protected their arachnid abdomens extended up their human torsos as well, terminating at their collarbones. They all lay belly-up, their backs resting on the underbellies of the ones below them, and many slept with their mouths stretched open by the position.
They didn’t need to be unnaturally still for it to be an unsettling sight, and yet they were. I knew they weren’t dead because I could sense the life force within the hive, now that I saw them. But the strength of their spirit was faint, in a scattered manner that brought Hasda’s description to mind.
That just invited a host of uncomfortable questions. Why had he noticed them before, but not now? I couldn’t feel any ebb or flow from the hibernating scorpions, and nothing in the dilation of my strange travel here had indicated any cloaking of this chamber or its contents. If they were the servants of Tamiyat’s mate, as the embossment showed, then why had the Paedens spared them? And if they’d been bound, instead of shown mercy, why outside the dungeon, and not within? And why hadn’t Jade mentioned them? Unless a few survivors had been cast in with her, and escaped the prison behind her. But had a scant number multiplied so quickly? Or had the Paedens ensnared a host?
The pool rippled, disturbing my thoughts and the false moon on its surface. An answering shiver descended through the creatures, a dust cloud darkening the air as the scorpions shifted. Light from the pool caught on the particles, creating constellations I hadn’t seen in millenia, and younger ones at that. They’d taken the night sky and wound time back on itself, a microcosm of stellar history.
I was so entranced that, at first, I didn’t notice the clicking. In echo of the shudder, it crept down the swarm until every encased abdomen trembled with the chittering. Like the drone of locusts, only shrouding an articulation that felt like a trick of the ears. Amongst the whine, I heard their name, “lakrabua,” but I also picked up a sharper chirping that might have been “ketri.” A third name teased my ears, buried under the chatter, a title inarticulable yet primordial, a sound that made my spine itch to run and abandon this place forever.
But then the sound ended, and the eerie calm returned.
I flexed my hands, trying to work the tension out of my palms. My neck was stiff, both from staring up so high and from straining against the panic. Whatever these things were, every instinct screamed that I didn’t want to be here when they awoke. But I wouldn’t have that problem if they never woke up again.
Stifling a manic laugh, I summoned my Scythe, careful not to expend too much energy. No reason to disturb them and rob them of a peaceful death. I didn’t know if the terror they’d induced had enough bite to back it up, but why take unnecessary risks?
By contrast, trying to harvest an entire flock of slumbering ketri by myself was calculated. There was a good chance the rest of the ketri would stir before I’d collected even half of them, but then again they’d languished for at least centuries. They must have suffered some atrophy during their suspension, and they weren’t divine beasts, because their spark held no higher elements. Their elongated suspension was likely a byproduct of the chamber’s influence, given the contents of its cell.
Because of the dust, my footsteps made little sound as I made my way to the nearest lakrabua. The air felt thick as I drew my Scythe back, and it wasn’t until something tugged at the shaft that I realized the density might not have been from my tension. A quick glance told me I wasn’t near the crack, and yet I was being sucked back towards it nevertheless.
I pushed against the Scythe, trying to glean what ketri I could before I was pulled away, but the unknown force dragged me away faster. I’d barely gotten the Scythe out from behind my leg when I became submerged in the swirling sensation I’d experienced on the way in. This time, however, instead of spitting me back into the mineshaft, it deposited me in an eddy, where I hung suspended in the darkness.
No matter how I pushed against the current, I made no headway. The darkness fought back, shoving me back into the lull whenever I pressed too hard against its constraints. My first doubts about my ability to escape this trap were dispelled by the arrival of a murky, amber glow in the distance that appeared in the direction of the tunnel. But that doubt returned as the light grew brighter, and with it the sense of something ancient, and extremely unpalatable, hidden behind it.
Whatever was making that light, I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet it. But, trapped in the darkness as I was, I didn’t have much choice. Swapping my Scythe for my Sword, I braced myself for combat and waited for the newcomer to make themselves known.