All of a sudden, Sikil began shouting and demanding answers from the air. Toph frowned, wondering if he had to return to his initial impression that perhaps someone mentally unbalanced was in the tunnels with him.
Sikil must have seen his concerned expression, for he launched into a tale about how he had been hearing the same voice ever since he had arrived here. As he trailed off, the Sidhe nodded.
"Very well.", he said. "If you don't mind, I'd like to see if you've been enchanted at all. This might be someone playing a trick on us."
Toph opened himself up to the Art that flowed in his veins and with practiced ease, felt himself pull at the Art.
There was nothing there.
Toph gasped, and then, concentrating, tried again. This time he could feel the magic coming slowly towards him until it roared into existence with a bright flash and a loud BANG!
Toph's arm darted out to grab Sikil before they both toppled over. For a moment, they stood, blinking the lights from their eyes before Toph reached inside himself, found the Art waiting as usual, and completed the spell, which manifested itself as a glowing orb that floated around Sikil in a purposeful manner.
"I am very sorry for that. I really can't say what happened! It appears that your voices are not magically induced, but that leaves a number of possible other options, including that this is the real deal."
Once again she cursed the companions who had got her into the mess in the first place. What kind of a sensible dwarf listened to elves and goblins? Especially ones as odd as those two. Whatever had possessed her to go into business with them? Or worse, listen to them when the elf has heard 'something' down that tunnel? She should have stuck to her instincts and pulled the two of them away from the tunnel entrance. At least then she could have been safe, sound and pleasantly pickled in a tavern rather than lost, confused and decidedly sober.
She carefully replaced the glass flowers in the leather pouch and hung it from her belt. Perhaps she could make a little profit off the silly things if she ever got out of the tunnels. "No, not if, when", she told herself sternly. She would find her way out and there was bound to be some magic-loving horticulturalist somewhere out in the world who'd pay a few coins for them. "There's plenty of odd people out there who are interested in the strangest of things and truth be told I think I know most of them. After all, I'm in business with two of them for my sins".
Rhoslyn crept back towards the entrance of the room, still half-expecting the ghosts to reappear and act out their past again. She opened the door a fraction and peered out into the corridor, a vision of much faded and decayed glory. It must have been a sight to behold once, truly impressive.
"Seal the tunnels then."
The ghostly words came back to her once again. However impressive the tunnels might have been the last defenders of this place and locked themselves within. They had closed themselves within and waited for help, for a rescue which had presumably never arrived. The dwarf woman shivered despite herself, she hated being below ground at the best of times, but these weren't just tunnels, they were a tomb.
Her mind wandered back to only a few minutes before when she had bolted into the guardroom after hearing other voices in the corridor. Had those been the voices of more ghosts? Perhaps they were the echoing memories of other souls who had been trapped in the tunnels and had never seen the light of day again. They might not pay any more attention to her than the ghosts of the guards had but that didn't mean she felt particularly happy about running into them. Or running through them for that matter
The tunnel bent slightly and he was barely aware of it until he looked back. The location in which he had tumbled down here was now lost to site but the tunnel itself seemed to still continue on forever. Was this just some giant circle? he thought to himself.
He reached out and grabbed hold of Toph with his right hand and nodded towards the wall. A door was clearly visible with light spilling out. Not the fickle light shed by the runes out here in the tunnel but something brighter, more distinct.
Within lies the answer and the question. Within lies a source a magic and a source of death. One of you is marked for one, the other marked for the other.
Floating in the doorway, a small speck of light slowly grew in size until it was the shape of a man. It glowed blue and pulsed with its own heartbeat. As the light faded, an older man stood there, leaning wearily on a staff. His clothes were marked with the rune that gave them light but seemed dated; long red robes splashed with blue with a red flame emblazoned on the right chest. His eyes, a piercing blue, looked straight ahead.
"Welcome to Acadia," the man said with a polite bow of his head. The image of the man flickered, looking like it was seen through water, and then strengthened. "If you have come to our aid, you are too late. I am the last of the council. That which has been given to us in trust is secure. May the Flame burn bright." The man bowed, flickered, and was suddenly upright again. "Welcome to Acadia," he said again and gave the bow of his head once more. "If you have come to our aid..." The image flickered again and then grew indistinct, before the image of the man vanished as if someone had put out a torch. The runes in the tunnel around them seemed to lessen as well as if the magic in them that had kept them burning was beginning to fade.
"This place is very old." Toph said as he studied one of the fading runes. "I recognize the cut and style of those robes, and they haven't been in fashion for hundreds of years." and didn't look good back then, either. He thought to himself. "I have not heard of Acadia, however, given my lack of familiarity with these runes and my reclusive nature of late, that is not entirely surprising."
Toph pulled his knife and began prying at one of the runes, eventually breaking off the tile it was a part of and placing the fading artifact into a pouch for later study.
And then, he felt it. It was faint. Impossibly faint, but present. Toph heard bells. Well, 'heard' was not the right word, 'felt' was a far more accurate word for it. In the back of his mind there were quiet bells ringing a pleasing melody. And that could mean only one thing.
Many of the other races wondered why the Sidhe did not employ members of their own race as spies and thieves. After all, with such an innate command of magic, it should be child's play to sneak in and out of the most secure locations. And it was. The problem was that the Art that flowed through their veins sung out to other Sidhe, manifesting as bells 'ringing' somewhere deep within their minds. Although a few of their number, the most powerful among them, had at various points learned to mask this from others, by the time one attained such knowledge, they were far too important to be used as a theif. And for the rest, having a single Sidhe on hand negated any Sidhe trickery from the other side.
So, somewhere beyond that door was a living Sidhe, or, perhaps, something created with the Art. Artifacts could also call out to a Sidhe if made by the Art, but it would have to be incredibly powerful to call out to him from this distance.
And so Toph pushed open the door, nearly knocking over a dwarf that had been just behind it in the process.
"Oh! My apologies" he said. "Are you stuck down here as well?"
The dwarf woman looked up at Toph, a faint frown marring the skin of her brow. Well if this didn't beat all, there was another living person down in the tunnels. Well she had to assume he was "living", after all the last figure to get this close had just walked right through her. If he wasn't alive, well then the Sidhe who stood before her was doing a good job of being a damn sight more solid than the guard had.
A Sidhe and was that another figure still beyond in the tunnel? What in all the lands would a Sidhe be doing down here? There again, for that matter, what would a dwarf with her head screwed on be doing down here? But she'd gone over that question before.
She patted the leather pouch at her waist briefly, fearing the flowers shattered by her fall. To her surprise she found them still in tact, the impossibly thin stems and delicate flowers still apparently unbroken. Definitely some sort of magic going on there. Not her thing of course, but she'd let some future buyer worry about what magic the flowers might contain or have been created with. So long as they came out of the tunnels in one piece, that was what was important, and given that they had survived her landing on them with her full weight it seemed that they were tougher than their frail appearance might lead someone to believe.
"Name's Rhoslyn", she said gruffly, offering the Sidhe one rather dusty hand, "Rhoslyn Fardridsdottir. And yes, it would appear that I am stuck down here as much as I'm guessing you are. Bit of advice, friend, never, ever listen to an elf."
"Sound advice. I'm Toph Imlardil, and that's Sikil... he fell, I got trapped by a cave-in... and you apparently took some bad advice. Seems to be the three most common reasons to get stuck somewhere, now that I think about it. Say, you haven't been hea-"
Toph broke off as he felt the ringing, stronger now than before.
"You haven't seen any other Sidhe or Art-crafted items down here, have you?"
Too many things were happening at once and finally he had time to put it together. The hole in the ground, the shadow, the blinding light, the fall down the stairs, and his meeting with Toph. Before all of this, his most exciting journey had been when he was asked to deliver mail to a brothel. Now he had a tale for his next stop a tavern!
Something flickered at the end of the vision and he glanced towards the right. One of the runes in the far distance flashed brightly and then went out, leaving that area completely dark. A shiver ran up his spine as he felt a cold draft coming down from the tunnel.
She looked around the room again, "Well there's some weapons over yonder, could be that one of them's special. There's a footlocker by the cot too, but most of what it contained just turned to dust when I touched it. Looked just like old clothes anyway. Found a couple of coins in there too. And some guard's present to his girl if I'm any judge of it".
The dwarf untied the pouch at her waist and pulled the glass flowers out one by one, laying them in the palm of her hand. "Pretty enough but not much use when you've been trapped down in this place I guess. I thought that once I got out of here I might be able to sell them for a bit, put together some gold towards replacing my ship".
Her ship yes, what use was a smuggler without a means of transport. From the very moment that she had left the mines of Bergelmir Rhoslyn had longed to see the ocean and it had been an impressive sight. One that had stolen her heart as soon as she had seen it. As a dwarf, most people expected her to practically bleed steel and iron but the truth was that salt water was closest to her heart. Making enough money to buy a ship of her own though, now that had been tricky and so when the elf and the goblin had offered to help her out as her business partners...well she'd jumped at the chance.
The good ship Elska might not have been the most impressive thing to every sail the seas but she had been sturdy and fast when the need called for it. For a few months everything had been perfect to Rhoslyn's mind. The elf had been quite happy pottering about the deck pestering the sailors with innane questions. The goblin and her alchemy had been banished to the lowest deck where she could do the least harm, or so they'd thought.
Goblin alchemy, was there ever a phrase to send more terror down your spine? She'd told the goblin to be careful but no, that just wasn't possible. One day that daft green creature had got it into her head that the decks needed a new kind of soap to wash them down with. Unfortunately as soon as the goblin had tested out her new concoction the wooden deck had started to melt away like foam. And Rhoslyn had thought that she was so clever when she sent that goblin to the lowest desk.
Elska had sunk beneath the waves in minutes, luckily they had been close to port.
Rhoslyn shook her head free of the memory, "Well friend you tell me if some Sidhe or other made-" She saw the other man - Sikil had the Sidhe called him? - look to one side and shiver. Ships, glass flowers, even annoying business partners, none of it would matter unless they could get out of here.
Toph banished the recollections from his mind with a brief shake of his head. It was no use dwelling in the past. He hadn't seen any of those Sidhe in a very, very long time, but the fact that this Art-worked thing before him pulsed a familiar, if too quiet to actually discern, pealing in his head, this had just gotten much more interesting.
"May I?" he asked, reaching out and picking up one of the flowers from Rhoslyn's palm.
The bells sharpened and grew more distinct as he held the flower, and, unbidden, the face that went with the bells appeared. But what was Lyssia's Craft doing here in this place? Toph continued to 'listen.'
The bells were... duller... than before. Well, no, that wasn't quite right. The tone was the same, but for some reason these notes sounded, well, 'hollower'. Toph had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Anything from a natural fading of Craft from an object over time to Lyssia making these flowers in a state of significant pain, or something else completely. For not the first time, and certainly not the last, he silently cursed having grown up far from where the Art was a subject of study.
Toph noticed that Rhoslyn was staring at him, and conciously started to breathe again.
"These... I have no idea how these got here, but these belonged to my mentor in the Art itself, Lyssia. I guess she must have visited this place a very long time ago. May I keep this one? I have little to remember her by. I will gladly compensate you in gold or whatever else you desire when we get out of here."
He noticed Sikil suddenly shiver.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Rhoslyn, you don't happen to have any real first aid supplies, do you? As you can see, Sikil... hurt himself badly when he fell."
"I should be okay, as long as we don't spend too much time down here. A good herbalist could whip me back into shape in no more then a few days and I can be off delivering again," he said with a weak smile and looked past the dwarf. The tapestries, what were left, had been expensive and the mention of the coins that Rhoslyn had found finally made it to him. There could be treasure down here, enough that split three ways, could set him up in a nice home for the rest of his life. By Leto's pointy chin, he could even take up a real trade!
"What say we explore a little? We're down here anyways."
Darkness flickered down the tunnel as another of the runes faded into darkness. Was it just his imagination or was something moving out there, just beyond the light?
"As for medical supplies, I'm afraid not friend Toph. My only plans for this evening had been to find a half-decent tavern where the beer wasn't too watered down and the prices were reasonable. Unfortunately the elf then saw this tunnel entrance and thought she heard someone in trouble down here. And being the soft-hearted thing that she is, she just wouldn't shut up about it. Heck I practically headed down the tunnel to get some peace and quiet for a few minutes. Then the tunnel split, twisted, turned...well you know what it's like down here". And there she had been, a dwarf with no sense of direction underground. The wrong member of her race for the situation and no mistake.
When Sikil mentioned exploring the tunnels it seemed to her to be as sensible a suggestion as any other. They certainly weren't about to find their way back into the open air by standing around in the old guardroom. There had to be ways out, if the tunnels had been some kind of city once upon a time well then thre were bound to be other ways out. Plenty of ways surely, normal cities had all manner of roads, just because this one had been underground wouldn't change too much. There would have been passages in and out for trade and waste, for high-born and low. Heck, for all she knew there might even be an old underground river that had flowed in and out of the city. Ok perhaps that was a little too much to hope for, but they'd never find out unless they started moving.
She re-tied the leather belt to her waist with its remaining two flowers secured within. "Well that seems like a sensible idea to me, gents. Never going to manage anything just waiting around in here. Who knows what else we might find on our way?" Grinning, Rhoslyn moved towards the door, while a treacherous little voice in her head whispered, yes who knows what else they sealed down here? All the stories from her childhood in the mines of Bergelmir flooded back to her, all the nasty things in the shadows, all the things that crept and slunk and hid till they were ready to pounce...
The dwarf unsheathed the long daggers at her waist, winked in what she hoped was a re-assuring manner at her unexpected travelling companions and said, "Well it never hurts to be safe".
Toph shrugged. He'd never know, so what was the point dwelling on the past? That was the first lesson any of his race learned.
"So, the elf didn't follow you, right? We're not looking for a fourth pers- Sikil, what do you keep looking at down there?"
Toph turned so that his gaze was looking where Sikil kept glancing. He saw the darkness and... that was about it. After a few seconds he turned back.
"Anyways. Exploration seems only reasonable. A place this big probably has many ways out."
"Nothing, I guess," he said as he turned back towards the guards room. He wasn't an idiot, he would need a weapon. The stories he had heard about caves and lost cities always spoke of something monstrous waiting to eat adventurers whole. Hadn't the dwarf said something about weapons being in there?
Sliding his way past them, he tried to put the thought of the growing darkness outside out of his head, and headed into the room and towards the weapon rack. He didn't have much training in weapons, the roads were pretty safe around the cities and the villages hired mercenaries whenever they did need to be cleaned. He hadn't even pulled his dagger out in defense in months!
A quick glance at the weapons told him that his options were severely limited. They were of an older style, probably older then most had seen and that in itself could probably get him some coin from them, but that wasn't his main concern. Not now. The glanced quickly at the edges and was surprised to see that they were all still sharp and showed no sign of rust. The guards of this city seemed to have preferred swords to daggers, though, and he was forced to pull a pole-arm from the weapon-rack.
"So does anyone recognize the name of Acadia?" he asked as he gave a few practice thrusts with the pole-arm. It would work well in the tunnels, just as long as he remembered to withdraw and keep whatever it was at the end at a distance.
It was mine. The voice returned and this time it sounded miserable. A vast city in the lands of Mo'pri. We felt the destruction coming and we ran, like cowards. No wonder no one came to our aid. We left all the others to die..
Her father had been a strange dwarf too, perhaps there was something in the blood that he had passed onto her. While he had not had Rhoslyn's keen dislike for being underground he had loved to travel. No other dwarf in living memory of the mine had ever travelled from Bergelmir, Fardrid had been the first. And he had come back with such wonderous tales, sometimes it had been hard to believe that he was telling the truth. Tales of goblin and elves, stories about snake-tailed women and men who sang like birds, about rivers that ran further than any tunnel and words that bit harder than any steel. Most of the other dwarves had ignored Fardrid and his stories but to Rhoslyn her father had been a hero.
After all, if Fardrid had never left the mines he would never have known of the cataclysm that struck the lands of Maxim. They would have never known of the need to run and hide. But Fardrid had returned and he had warned them all. She still had vague memories of being little more than a babe in arms, held close by her father as he had led the dwarves of Bergelmir deep down into the protective arms of the earth itself. How far they had travelled she would never know, but without Fardrid they would never have travelled at all.
But enough of such things, "Friend Sikil if you are happy with that polearm we had best press onwards. There might be all manner of things waiting for us out in the tunnels but the exit we seek will not come to us while we wait here". Rhoslyn turned her head towards the Sidhe, "And friend Toph you have no need to worry about my elvish 'friend', she has an amzing tendancy to wriggle her way out of trouble as easily as she forces me into it. "
"That thing looks serious, Sikil. Lets hope we don't have to use it. Shall we?"
And pushing a little orb of light before him, which flickered and spluttered in a concerning manner to the Sidhe, he began walking down the corridor which Sikil had been glancing down.
The corridor seemed to go on forever, just like the one outside, and the runes in the wall seemed to be slightly stronger as they gave off more light. Just as he was about to have someone else take the lead, the corridor opened up into a massive cavern that took his breath away.
The chamber itself seemed to stretch for as far as the eye could see and was shaped like an overturned bowl. On the bottom of the chamber stretched a massive city, its architecture foreign to him, and its buildings in a state of advanced decay. Many of the roofs seemed to have caved in and some walls had even fallen into the streets. In the center of the city stood a tower that nearly stretched to the roof of the cavern, its exterior etched with a multitude of runes, the ones most distinct were the same that gave the trio light to see with. The roof itself nearly made Sikil drop to his knees in shock. The roof of the cavern, if it indeed was a roof at all, looked like a clear day sky with clouds and all that moved over its expanse.
Welcome to our grave. The voice was loud but he felt something was off with it this time. It took him a moment to realize that it wasn't in his head, but now somehow outside of him. Next to him. Standing between him and Toph was the image of the man that had greeted them at the door but something was different this time. The man seemed to be looking at them all. Looking at them with awareness. Or it should have been, if the magic hadn't been corrupted by this place. The man sighed. I can only warn you once. Below you'll find our treasures but you'll also find whats left of the citizens. Undead and worse lurk the streets. The man looked at Toph and bowed his head slightly as if in respect and then vanished.
"I.. did anyone else just see that?" Sikil asked hesitantly.
The roof - or sky, who could tell? - at least lifted her spirits. Whether it really was the sky or not she wasn't sure but just being able to see something that appeared to be a reasonable facsimile was heartening. It reminded her of how good it had felt the first time she had left the mines of her birth, to feel the winds upon her face and real light, not just lamp-light on her face. Silently she reassured herself that she would get out of this place, one day she really would be out of all the tunnels and caverns and back in the open air once more. Soon enough, she would escape and find her way back to her beloved seas.
She felt as though she jumped three feet in the air when the voice spoke and the figure appeared between her taller companions. It spoke of treasure, which was all well and good, but also of the walking dead. Rhoslyn shook her head with regreat, it seemed as though those who had trapped themselves in the darkness below the earth hadn't even had the peace of the grave to comfort them. Did they realise what they had become? Did they loathe it? Or had they embraced it in the end, glad to grasp at one more chance to revenge themselves upon the sunlit-world who had not sent anyone to save them?
"Well if I turn into an undead, I'm going after that bloody elf and goblin who got me into this in the first place", she whispered to herself. Rhoslyn got a tighter grip on her long bladed knives, she had no idea if they would be any good against those who had already known death's embrace but she would be damned before going down without a fight.
Especially if there was a chance at treasure if the offing.
But as he opened his eyes, those hopes were dispelled. No living community would let their homes fall into such disarray. Still, his mind began to sort through what he saw, noting the style of building and using that to roughly date the ruins while his eyes roamed, picking up the runes and staring, curious, at the 'sky' above.
So it was a bit startling when suddenly a loud voice unlike either of his companions sounded to his right. Wheeling about to face the apparition, he felt his hand clench at the mention of undead, and wondered if he was feeling undead Sidhe below.
"Wait, did you see that?" Toph said when the apparition had vanished. "It looked directly at me and bowed as if it recognized me."
Toph tried and failed to place the face to someone in his past, but came up empty. He had met so many people over the years... it was certainly possible that he had met this individual and forgotten... but it was equally plausible that the apparition had been programmed to respect either the Oldest, the Tallest or the... err... Sidhe-est... among them.
"Looks like whether we want to our not, we have to go through... if there's an exit... its through there."
Toph's hand tightened on his dagger, but he did not draw it. His magic would see him through today.
He looked towards his two companions and shook his head. "Sorry, it's just that... well, this was the last thing I expected when I woke up this morning," he said with an amused grin. Taking a deep breath, he calmed himself and straightened before taking a look back at the cavern.
"An exit with probably a hundred, no, a thousand undead between us and it," Sikil said softly. "So what do we do? Personally, I say we make a run for it to that tower thingy and from there we may be able to see a way out." He drew in a deep breath as he looked at the distance between the tower and them. "But knowing our luck, we'll find the tower shut or filled with, with, well, whatever undead thing wants to eat us."
Still she had to admit that he did have a point, had any of them thought that they'd end up in this situation when they had woken up? She sure hadn't, the best she'd hoped for was a successful business meeting and a few pints in a hospitable tavern (or maybe two) to pass the evening. That wasn't really too much for a dwarf to hope for now was it?
She took another look at the ruined city, trying to see from where they stood if there was any obviously blocked streets or obvious dead ends. There were more than a few but she thought she could see a rough route through the chaotic ruins that might lead them to the tower. The tower itself looked in better state than most of its surroundings, perhaps some of the runes etched upon its surface were helping it to fight off the decay that had stricken the rest of the area.
"It might be that the tower is our best hope, sure it could contain some dreadful undead gribbly that wants to eat us, but it's also the highest point around here. I bet if we could get there and get any distance up it we might be able to spot ourselves a way out of here". There would be undead a-plenty between them and their goal but what else could they do? If they went back the way they came they might wander lost forever. If they stayed where they were, well how long would it be before the undead in the city noticed them and shambled out to say hello?
Not to mention that she had no intention of getting out of the tunnels with nothing more than a couple of glass flowers and some old coins to her name. Rhoslyn gestured towards the higher levels of the tower, "And I'd bet every last tunnel in Bergelmir that if there's anything worth taking with us out of here it'll be up there too".
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