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Jul 06

A Beating Heart of Stone Part 5

The Captain glanced quickly around the corner, seeing only another empty hall beyond. He listened for the sound of approaching feet, but heard nothing. Nothing at all.

He returned to the small room where the crew waited. Millennia ago it may have been a storeroom or chapel, it was impossible to tell with the Ancients, but now it was empty save the column of crystal that gave it light. It had seemed as good a place as any for them to hide.

Looking at the crew, if he didn’t know better, he’d think they were in just another room, not trapped who knew how far beneath the earth. There had been no sign of the goblins since their escape, at least a day earlier. They slept in the meantime, alternating teams of lookouts, but nothing came. The Captain wasn’t sure whether that was a good sign or a bad one.

Gehard leaned against a wall, sharpening one of his innumerable weapons. Carter was showing Adrian an old card game they used to play back at the Order. Only Maria showed any sigh of concern, and hers was for Alexia, who lay on a sleeping mat next to her. The pyromancer had collapsed after their escape, the exertion finally catching up with her.

The Captain sat down next to Maria. “How is she?”

“Sleeping.”

“And how are you?”

“A little tired. That wall yesterday took a lot out of me.”

The Captain watched as Alexia’s chest rose and fell, noticing how the patterns of blue light played across her hair.

“There’s a line,” Maria said after a time. “Between bravery and recklessness. I don’t think she’s found it yet.”

“I think what happened yesterday showed her that,” The Captain said. “You have to cross a line many times before you know where it lies.”

She rolled her eyes. “Carter says you’ve always done that.”

“Done what?”

“Known exactly what to say.”

“He does?” the Captain glanced at his old friend as he won a hand. “You two seem to really like each other.”

“That can’t surprise you. He’s you without a sword.”

“Really?” the Captain asked, this time genuinely intrigued. “I never thought we were that similar.”

“Trust me, you are,” she shook her head in disbelief. “How could you not have noticed?”

“I don’t know. I suppose it takes an outsider to see things like that. Like how you probably can’t tell how similar you and Alexia are.”

“We are not alike!”

“Yes you are,” he said, amused at how much the comparison irritated Maria.

“How?”

“You’re both driven by what you feel, you just feel different things. For you it’s compassion, for her, passion. But on the few occasions I’ve seen you angry,” he chuckled slightly, “you could take down a bear.”

She glared at him with the intensity of one who didn’t like what they just heard, but knew it was true.

“Just an observation,” the Captain said, raising his hands defensively.

“Fine,” she flicked the word off her lower lip. “But I still don’t trust her.”

“That’s your prerogative,” the Captain pushed himself up. “I’m going back to stand guard. Let me know when she wakes up. We need to get moving as soon as we can.”

“Moving to where?”

“Back to the central room. If we can find reach it when it isn’t full of goblins, we should be able to make it out. Then we get reinforcements and mount another search.”

– –

That was the plan, or had been the plan. But after a few hours of dead ends the plan was seeming farther and farther away from reality.

Gehard scowled at the Captain as they worked their way back from another wrong turn, “I thought you knew the way out.”

“I do,” the Captain said, “I memorized the turns we took.”

“Then why aren’t we back yet?”

“I don’t know. The only reason I can think of is that the tunnels are moving.”

“Tunnels moving. Is that possible?” Alexia asked from his side. The Captain had noticed that, since she woke up, Alexia had been staying as close to him as she could.

“As much as I wish it wasn’t, with the Ancients, you never know. Carter?” he called back, “how’s that map coming.” Carter had always had a strange love of maps, a trait which had been invaluable when making some of their more clandestine plans.

“It died,” he said darkly.

“That bad?”

“As far as I can tell, these tunnels have looped back on themselves five times, but we’ve never passed the same point twice. Either this place is a labyrinth, or. . .”

“The tunnels really are moving,” Adrian said. “We’re never getting out of here, are we?”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” the Captain said.. “If we’re still lost an hour from now, then we’ll know something’s wrong.”

They walked for a while longer in silence, the Captain trying to work out their location in his head. His distinct lack of success was interrupted by Alexia.

“Captain,” she said quietly, “I wanted to thank you, for what you did yesterday. Saving me like that.”

“I wasn’t about to leave you there with a madman.”

“That wasn’t what I meant,” she paused, as if readying thoughts that didn’t want to become words. “I wanted to thank you for what you said. You were right. I just need to keep going.”

“It’s nothing.”

“I know. I’ve just . . . never had anyone take that much interest in how I’m doing.”

He placed his hand on her shoulder. “Regardless of what everyone else thinks of you, I want you here with us. Remember that.”

Finally, a smile.

The Captain heard Maria approach them from behind, “I have an idea.”

Alexia shifted away subtly as Maria neared.

“What kind of idea?”

“A way for us to navigate. There must be animals of some kind living down here.”

“And you’re thinking they can lead us out?”

“Yes.”

Adrian seemed incredulous. “Meaning we’re going to follow a bunch of rats?”

“Or insects,” Maria said. “They’d know the layout of these tunnels better than anyone.”

“The problem,” the Captain said, “Is finding an animal. I haven’t seen anything living since those goblins.”

“They probably ate them all,” Gehard commented.

“Always the pessimist,” Maria said. “I’m going to try a calling spell, that way we’ll be sure to find something.”

She lifted a white eagle feather from her pocket, which she kept on her at all times.

Everyone else gathered around her as a trickle of light seeped into its tip. She traced the feather through the air, a thin stream of light following its movements, carving the symbols for the four winds. The Captain felt a brief flash of something primal move past him as the spell was released into the world.

Now all they had to do was wait for it to be answered.

There was a click, distant as if echoed down the long hallway. Then the sound of a latch catching.

The Captain was thrown into Alexia as the ground beneath jolted out from under him. He felt the hard floor ram into his back. He managed to prop his head up long enough to see a rift open in the tunnel’s center, cutting it in two. Carter scrambled away from the opening as it widened, revealing nothing but black space beyond, cutting them off from each other. He caught the Captain’s eye, briefly, before the whole section of tunnel disappeared into darkness.

The Captain struggled to right himself, staring into the bleak shadows where his friend had been.

“Where did they go?” Maria asked, staring in terror at the empty space.

“I don’t know.” He steadied himself. “But we have to get moving.”

He grabbed Maria’s shoulder, tearing her away from the void, and hurried down the hall. It was now just the three of them, alone, against a ruin that moved.

– –

“Please, lets stop,” Maria said, her voice weary, “I need a break.”

“Do you think it’s safe?” Alexia asked.

“To be honest,” the Captain said, “I have no idea what’s safe in here. But we might as well rest if we need to.” He sat and began going through his pack, pulling out some of their rations and a canteen full of water.

“I miss Gloria’s food,” Maria said after she finished chewing a mouthful of stale bread.

“Me too,” Alexia said.

“You know,” Maria continued, “when we entered this place, I never really thought we’d get lost down here. It was all so beautiful, like something from a dream.”

“I know what you mean,” Alexia said, struggling to tear a chunk off the loaf. “Now it all seems so . . . menacing. Like all the light and colour just makes it more dangerous.” She gave up and cut a piece off with a dagger. “Do you mind if I ask a you question?”

Maria shook her head, “Might as well.”

“Why can’t you trust me?”

Maria thought for a moment, which must have been excruciating for Alexia. “It’s not that I feel betrayed by what you did, I understand why you did it. It’s that you couldn’t trust us that bothers me. You felt you had to betray us to keep yourself safe. I don’t know if I can trust someone who won’t trust me.”

“I see,” Alexia said after a while.

“Any other difficult questions you want to ask?”

“No, I’m good.”

“I’ve been thinking,” the Captain said, “about these ruins. That crown Mazanc has must let him control the tunnels’ movement. That’s why he’s so attached to it.”

“Then why doesn’t he change it so the goblins can reach us?”

“I don’t know, maybe he’s taunting us, or maybe he doesn’t know how yet.” He began packing up their things. “Either way, we don’t want to stay in one place too long. Are we ready to get moving?”

Maria sighed, “If we have to.”

“Come on,” the Captain said, “I’ll have Stark give you a foot rub when we get back.”

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