A Woeful Melody
I concentrate on matching my pace to Maven’s. After a while it becomes automatic and frees up my mind to think about other things. As oftentimes lately when I have nothing to focus on, my thoughts stray to Tef and Kyne, both embittering and sombering my mood.
“Diqan, are you alright?” Maven asks, pulling me out of my mind. She looks at me curiously.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I say, giving her a small smile.
“Okay. Don’t worry too much. Trust that Gwynn will get us through the caves safely.” Maven says, incorrectly assuming my mental struggle. I nod once.
“Yeah, I know.” I say and the conversation dies out. I pay more attention as we get closer to the edge of the darkness. We stop by it’s edge and wait, while those on the outer columns pull out lamps, covered with small scraps of thick cloth. As they pull off the coverings, it reveals short cylindrical shaped metal, with glass in the middle, emanating a dark green light.
Once all the lamps are unveiled, we move forward into the shadows. The featureless grey rock stretches out in front and behind us and soon I retreat back into myself. Maven leaves me be, seeming content to walk in silence.
Time passes quickly, yet when I rouse myself from my melancholy, the landscape is much the same. The only change is that the ground rises or lowers, as if on hilly plains, rather than deep underground. I glance all around me, and something catches my eye on the ceiling: a hole about knee height where the rock curves down towards the floor. I stare at it as we get closer. It isn’t until it’s almost overhead that I can see deep grooves by it’s entrance, and at the same time a jet black, sinuous mass shoots out of it, aiming for a man in front of me. I rush forward, pushing the man to the ground and barely turn in time, for the beast to slam into my back, driving me to my hands and knees.
“Hey!” The man says, turning to face me, then freezes.
“Burrows!” I hear Maven yell. The burrow on my back digs in and I can feel the pressure of its claws, even through my canvas bag and leather armor. I throw myself onto my back, pulling my arms from the straps on my bag and pull Kyne’s sword free of its sheath. The beast is lit enough that I can see most of its body. It has four thick claws, a couple inches long on its forelegs. It’s body is short, but bundled with compact muscles, and not a single hair grows on it’s obsidian skin. Razor sharp teeth line its long snout and the most surprising feature to me is its complete lack of eyes. Where most animals would have them is simply smooth skin.
I brandish my sword in front of me, and I notice others grouped around the creature, their swords at the ready. We wait, afraid to make the first move, while the beast moves its head around in small, sharp bursts of unnatural speed. It opens its mouth and lets out a high pitched screech.
“Kill it!” A commanding voice yells from the front of the line. I take a step forward and slice downwards, but I’m far too slow and it dodges my strike easily, then darts toward a person to my right. It leaps and takes the man in the chest, its claws gripping into the armor, its teeth following close after, tearing into the exposed flesh on his neck. The sight of blood holds me in place, as others rush forward to help him.
I feel a hand grab the back of my armor and yank me backwards.
“Are you alright?” A voice asks firmly.
I despondently glance at the source of the voice. Maven stands alert, a short sword in her hand, black with the burrows’ blood. I stare at her face, searching for some sign of comfort.
“Stay steady Diqan. We need to keep moving.” Maven says, gripping my shoulder firmly. The warmth of her hand, and of her gaze thaws me from my frozen state.
I clutch my sword tightly in both hands and turn away from Maven. A surprising number of burrows prowl around, darting in for attacks and mostly being knocked back, though a few people sport wounds from their relentless assault. Both beast and human begin grouping, finding strength in numbers. I take a place beside a tall woman with short brown hair. She spares me a glance and a nod, then we watch the creatures closely. Their heads move in unnatural rapid motions. Maven takes my side. As one, the burrows open their mouths and I see black. I recover quickly, luckily just in time to intercept one of the beasts. I swing Kyne’s sword down diagonally, catching it in the shoulder and easily rending it in two. The sight of blood still makes me uneasy, but I’m able to push it from my mind. I turn to Maven and see her pull her sword from the dead body of another beast. Turning back, I’m horrified to see more than half the group on the ground in pools of blood. Constant screams fill the cavern, echoing in endless horror, and grinding on my ears. I swallow bile back as I step towards another of the burrows. This one, distractedly feeding on the same woman who had just stood by my side. I slice its head off with a downwards cut, but accidently slice into the woman’s dead body with the force of my swing. I yank the blade out, and this time I can’t stop myself from vomiting. After a moment, I spit the acid from my mouth and wipe my face.
Loriana, my patron Saint of Protection, watch over us in life and lead us in death. Loriana, my patron Saint of Protection… I repeat the phrase, again and again, not as a cry to any god, as I find my belief wavering in the face of the terror in front of me, but as a way to distract my mind from reality. Blood and entrails paint the ground, as if a demon’s art piece, with humanity at the mercy of its pleasures.
The half of the group that survived the beasts initial attack are able to slay the beasts as they feed on the deceased. Gwynn walks to my side and grips my shoulder, her mouth a thin line and her eyes a cloudy green. I barely acknowledge her, watching as Maven moves swiftly to each body, checking for vitals, a carefully blank expression hiding what I can only assume matches the dread that hangs heavy around us.
“I’m glad you survived.” Gwynn says softly. It takes a long time to find my voice.
“I’m glad you lived as well.” I say tightly, my mind lost in disbelief.
In the end, Maven deems all those on the floor dead. For several minutes, a heavy silence falls over us, and we hang our heads under the great weight of it. Eventually, it’s broken as people move to pull tents out from their packs. They weave them together into a massive stretcher with a level of competence that chills me, for what it reveals. I watch detachedly as they gently move the deceased onto the stretcher, and it takes a few moments for me to move to help. My body acts on it’s own, and I take care not to stare at the bodies I carry. Soon, all the dead are stacked on in a pile of limbs, blood, and empty stares. I look away, and take my place on one of the edges. Together, we lift the stretcher up with a heave and begin the slow walk through the tunnel. Nobody dares complain about our progress being slowed to a crawl.
Simply being able to do this is reason enough not to. Any of us could have swapped places with the dead...and even while thinking this, I can’t help but be grateful that I’m alive. Doesn’t that make me an evil person? What would Tef think of these dark thoughts?
A strong, but quiet humming fills the air. I look around, startled out of my thoughts. I realize it’s Maven, who stands across from me. She stares ahead of her, her eyes dim, but not empty. The sound echoes slightly on the walls, only adding to it’s despairing tone. Before long, others join her, until even I attempt to match the haunting melody. A voice strikes out from the group, powerful, and rich in sorrow. Gwynn.
“Over the valley, Far on high
Embers in a blaze, Lost for good
You came and went, You came and went
Sparkle in the night, Dead and gone
Ripple on the stream, Silenced on
You came and went, You came and went.”
I listen as her voice fills the tunnel, slight pauses in between each line, which amplifies the echoes of her voice. Moments after the reverb from the last line dies out, I hear muffled sobs and the rustling of cloth as people use their free hand to wipe tears from their face. I put a hand to my own face, and wipe the wetness from my eyes, refusing to cry in full. I’ve shed more tears than anyone has a right to. And even now, amidst all this sorrow, I’m selfish. I can only think of my safety...and of Kyne and Tef.
A brooding silence settles over us once again, and miles glide from under my feet rapidly and without notice, as my thoughts are turned inward. The ground shifts from hard rock to hard soil, and at the same time, the tunnel opens up. A pinprick of light is visible, like a candle in the unending darkness. With its presence I feel my spirits rise somewhat, and am able to break from my morose thoughts. A pang of guilt hits me. I steal a glance at the dead. How can I feel such relief in the face of such grief? The light brightens steadily as we walk, until I’m able to see through the tunnel exit. Abruptly, the tunnel widens into a cavern impossibly large. A sky of stone overlooks fields of wheat and beans. More people than I would ever have imagined mill about, tending to the crops. Everything is tinged with an incandescent cerulean from the moss that hangs as clouds in the sky. I can’t temper the awe I feel in taking in the view, and I glance excitedly at Gwynn and Maven, but they don’t share my attitude. Both stare intently ahead of them, their backs slightly stooped and their eyes weary. It reminds me of the weight we bear. I blink. Looking closer, I see the way the farmers move with the lethargy of gruesome and dissatisfying labor. For the plants, despite their novelty in existing underground, are sickly and decrepit and barely grip into the rocky soil.