Sea spray burst like a wet sneeze up over the out-thrusting sandstone cliff, reaching almost to Kiluron’s booted feet like grasping fingers that could not quite reach their goal and instead slipped back into the morass from which they had been extruded.  With his arms folded and his legs slightly apart, Kiluron imagined he was defying the ocean, daring the sea to touch him with its salty fingers if it only could stretch so far.  That strength was mere defiance to the traitorous trembling that still took his limbs if he was careless.

               Footsteps crunched in the fine gravel behind him, but he did not turn to see who was approaching; better that whoever it was not see his face.  His peripheral vision showed him Doil’s boots come to a stop beside his, the shorter man’s stance narrower, less commanding, than Kiluron’s.  That made Kiluron wonder when he had started thinking of Doil, or himself for that matter, as a man, rather than a boy.  Regardless, he was pleased that Doil did not break the silence, and returned to his defiance of the ocean.

               Far to his right, the sun was setting in the sky, imparting a ruddy hue to the landscape that belied the chill wind that whipped up the waves into whitecaps and pressed Kiluron’s loose clothing tight against his pebbled skin.  Kiluron relished the cold; it helped him to pretend that his tremors were from the temperature, and not the continued weakness in his muscles that persisted even since his recovering from his sickness.  Salty, briny air coated his throat and his skin and filled his nostrils, and that felt refreshing.  Maybe what Doil had claimed had some truth.

               Merolate would be in skillful hands while he was away, perhaps better than his own; Borivat was certainly more experienced and better educated than Kiluron.  To think that he had been beginning to think he was worthy of being Prime, that he could do a good job…then he had spent most of his second major crisis unable even to get himself out of bed, while Doil found a way to keep the Union safe and stable.  It would have been better if he hadn’t been growing confident.  Maybe it would be better if he never returned from this isolated retreat on the coast.

               “Nice sunset,” Doil remarked.

               Kiluron offered him a grunt, in acknowledgement more than reply, and otherwise stayed silent.

               “You’ve been out here awhile,” Doil observed.  “Lady Fetrina’s already gone to bed.”

               To this, Kiluron did not even bother with a grunt.

               “You don’t want to talk, do you,” Doil noted.

               That was so obvious that Kiluron wasn’t certain why Doil had bothered to note it at all.

               This whole time, Doil had been looking out to see, his gaze parallel to Kiluron’s, but now he turned his head to face him.  “Do you need to talk?”

               “No.”  It felt like a tremendous effort just to force out the word, and Kiluron knew it came out strained and angry, but he didn’t care.

               Doil was silent for a long span, until the sun had finished setting.  When Kiluron still gave no sign of moving or speaking, he gave a soft sigh.  “Alright.  You know where to find me if you change your mind.”  Wrapping his cloak around himself against the chill wind, he went back inside.  Kiluron followed him with his ears until the heavy door of the coastal fortress thudded shut, but he did not move.

               “Unbalance it,” Kiluron whispered to himself.  A part of him wanted to scream it out to the grasping ocean and the roosting seabirds, but he lacked even that much conviction.  “Unbalance it all.”  It sounded more like a cry than a curse.  Feeling even more useless than before, he turned his back on the sea and made his slow way to his bedroom.  At least when he was asleep, he didn’t have to think.

               Every morning on the coast began with dense fog, a grey and dingy soup that reflected what swirled in Kiluron’s head as he sat at the oversized dining table watching Doil and Fetrina eat breakfast.  A plate sat in front of him, with a buttered and jammed slice of dark bread and a few pickles, but he hadn’t touched it, instead just staring at the plate without seeing it.  He had been making a point of belting on his sword each morning, but this morning he hadn’t bothered; he knew he couldn’t wield it, not when he could barely even use a fork.  Even had he been hungry, he wouldn’t have cared to eat where anyone else could see his fingers trembling.

               “Did you sleep well, Lady Fetrina?”  Kiluron’s mood seemed to have influenced the timbre of the whole gathering, because Doil’s usually chipper morning conversation sounded forced and artificial to Kiluron.  Or maybe that was simply how he was filtering the noise.

               “Well enough, thank you,” Fetrina replied formally, as if she hadn’t spent most of the previous evening debating rational philosophy with Doil.

               Silence reigned again, and the hazy orb of the sun looked small and weak as it struggled to cut through the enveloping shroud of mist.  “There are some ruins less than half a day’s ride from here.  I thought it might be interesting to investigate them today?”  Doil directed his words towards Kiluron, but Kiluron just shrugged.

               After an awkward silence, Fetrina answered.  “That sounds lovely.”  She turned towards Kiluron.  “You’ll join us, I trust?”

               Kiluron grumbled, but Doil preempted him before he could manufacture a negative.  “Of course he will.  I’ve already ordered our horses saddled.”

               “Wonderful,” Fetrina remarked.  Kiluron grumbled, shoved his plate away, and retreated upstairs to retrieve his cloak and sword.  He might not be able to use it, but he certainly wasn’t going to go picking around some ruins unarmed.

               It took until nearly midmorning for the sun to burn away the mist and reveal the naked, blue sky beyond, so most of the ride to the ruins was through swirling fog that made it difficult to see even the rear of the horse in front of him.  Trees branches seemed to stab out of the mist, unassociated with any apparent trunk, and every rustle of rodent in the underbrush growing from the sandy, shifting soil was amplified into something much larger and more threatening.  It was ideal weather for brooding, and Kiluron took advantage of it for the duration of the ride, ignoring the inane banter of his companions.  All three of them knew it was forced for his benefit.

               Still, even Kiluron had to admit that it had become a pleasant morning by the time they reached the ruins.  Had Doil not known where they were, the ruins would surely have remained hidden; they could barely be seen through the thick scrub trees from the faint track along which the companions had ridden from the coastal castle.  Even when Kiluron dismounted, all he saw was a low, crumbling stone façade with green and orange traces where once the blocks had been bound with metal, or fixtures had been affixed to them.  Long centuries exposed to the salty, coastal air had left no more substantial remnants.

               “How old do you suppose it is?” Fetrina asked.  “I don’t recognize the architectural style.  Do you think it could be from the initial settlement period?”

               “Hard to say,” Doil mused.  “It’s difficult to account for the degradation resulting from the sea air.  My theory is that it might be related to the ruin that was recently studied on the Rovis coastline.”

               Kiluron said nothing, uninterested in how old this crumbling heap of stone was, or who might have built it, or for what purpose it might have been used.  Leaving Doil and Fetrina to their discussion, he kicked through the leaves and sand to make his way around the initial façade, finding that there was what appeared to be the remains of a set of stairs leading up and over that initial structure.  He kicked his way up those, and looked around without interest.  More ruins lay on the other side, pointing like an arrow out towards the coast.

               Soon Doil and Fetrina were moving up the stairs after him, to stand upon the decrepit platform and exclaim over it like it was a dragon’s abandoned treasure-horde.  “…could be some kind of beacon,” Doil was saying.  “A sort of primitive naval navigational signal, to warn travelers from Nycheril to avoid the coastline.”

               “But that would imply a level of nautical and architectural prowess far beyond the similar period artifacts in other regions of both Lufilna and the explored parts of Nycheril,” Fetrina argued.  “Perhaps it is a more recent artifact of the nature you suggest.”

               “I admit that the timelines don’t quite align,” Doil agreed.  “However…”

               Closing his ears to whatever else Doil was going to say, Kiluron kicked his way away from them again, making for the opposite edge of the platform.  The sand was nearly a palm deep over the stone, even on the exposed surface.  He knew exactly what Doil and Fetrina were trying to do, trying to draw him out by leaning into their respective personas, but he wasn’t interested in being drawn out, not now.  It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate that they desired to help him; it was simply that sometimes, he didn’t want to be helped.

               Still kicking and shuffling his way over the uneven stones and sand, Kiluron made it to the far edge of the platform, and turned left, making his way towards the corner now, where he saw a faint animal track leading back to the ground.  Doil claimed that with training and practice and time, the tremble in his muscles would subside, but they both knew that there was no way to know that for certain.  At least Vere had admitted as much.  The contaminant wasn’t something they had ever encountered before, so there was no way to know if Kiluron’s trembles would fade with time until time had passed.

               He stubbed his toe on something buried beneath the blanket of sand, and cursed under his breath, deliberately lifting his feet and stomping over whatever had blocked his progress.  Something gave a creaky crack beneath his boot, and with a startled yell he found himself tipping forward.  He flung his arms out to his sides to try to arrest his fall, but only succeeded in bashing his knuckles and abrading his arms before his head smacked into a rotten wooden rim, and he lost consciousness.

1500 Years Ago

               A storm was raging overhead, a rare occurrence on this part of the coast, and Eldri felt frail and small even within the shelter of the waypost.  It wasn’t that he feared the storm, but rather what it implied, and what it could hide, or at least that was what he told himself.  Everything had seemed more intimidating since he had escaped from the gods.  Even the woman crouching in the opposite corner of the waypost frightened him, for all that she was his only hope for something he barely even dared to think.  He was unaccustomed to his mind being a safe place to have thoughts.

               “Stop cowering,” the woman snapped.  She had told Eldri her name, but he had not understood it.  He called her Cruba, which meant hunter.  It seemed apt enough.  “You are man, no?  Not beast.”

               Swallowing past the lump in his throat and the tightness of his bladder, Eldri managed to nod with what he hoped was an appropriate enthusiasm, but he did not miss Cruba’s rolling eyes, and he heard her mutter something in her own language.  He might not know what the words meant, but he understood the tone.  She thought he was weak, not worthy of the risks she was taking for him, and Eldri was not certain that she was wrong.

               A massive shape swooped low over the waypost, rattling the stones in their settings, and every torch in the place went out like candles snuffed by a hurricane.  An inhuman screech echoed through the night, and then a thunderous sound that had nothing to do with the storm clapped across the world, staggered Edlri to his hands and knees, and left him retching.  Cruba, he noted, was also on the cold stone floor, her breath coming faster, but her eyes were fixed up at the top of the shaft leading to the outside world, and she was glaring.

               “Bloody dragons,” she told him.  “They may fight against your gods, but they are no allies of free men.”

               Eldri had no words, but could only stare at Cruba with wonderment and terror.  What kind of person could so casually defy both gods and devils?  It was true they were far from Heart City, but distance meant little to such creatures.  Perhaps this was what it meant to be free: Eldri found himself wondering if he would one day be a dark-eyed warrior like his rescuer, guiding other frightened souls out of Lufilna’s darkness and into the light of the free land in the south.

               Another shriek split the night like a Blood sacrifice’s chest, and then the ground seemed to ripple like a lake disrupted by a tossed boulder.  Somehow, Cruba rode the wave, maintaining her position at the base of the shaft, while Eldri cowered in the corner and wondered how the waypost had not collapsed at this force.

               “Was that?” he asked in a tiny voice.

               Cruba glared at him, and he shrank back, but finally she nodded, the motion barely visible in the darkness.  “Dragon power is different in many ways from that of your gods.  My people once thought to make allies of them, and even that the dragons might be more powerful.  But that is not the way of things.  Better to be free.”

               “Will the devils hunt us, too?” Eldri asked.

               “Call them dragons, not devils,” Cruba reprimanded.  “And no, they will not hunt us.  Not like the giants will.  But this one may yet draw too much attention to this place, and then we will be dead.”

               Finding that he had stopped breathing, Eldri forced himself to take several deep breaths.  “But you could fight them, right?”

               The look he received from Cruba for that question was as dismissive and arrogant as any he had received from a god.  With her dark skin disappearing against the night, and her bronze spear glimmering like the whites of her eyes, she looked a kind of demon herself.  “Fight them?  You do not fight giants, fool.  You can only hope they don’t notice you.”

               When Kiluron regained consciousness, all he could see was a terrible, blinding light.  A dark shape loomed over him, eclipsing a portion of the light, and then another shape, similar to the first, appeared on the opposite side.  Blinking, Kiluron reached up to rub his head, and regretted it when his probing fingers sent a spike of pain into his mind and came away sticky.

               “Are you alright?”  The voice sounded oddly distant, but slowly resolved into the concerned face of Doil leaning over him, as the light faded to merely the late morning sunlight slanting through a rectangular shaft to where Kiluron was sitting in a greyish puddle of brackish water.

               Kiluron took a moment to consider Doil’s question as he slowly gathered the parts of himself together that had been scattered by his clumsy fall.  “Think so,” he mumbled.  Bad enough that Doil was staring at him; Fetrina was also peering concernedly down into the low pit, as if Kiluron were some kind of specimen.  Nothing seemed broken, although his arms and knuckles were smarting terribly, and his head felt like someone had mistaken it for a nail.  More accurately, he had apparently mistaken his head for a hammer.  “How long?” he asked.

               “Just a few moments,” Doil assured him.  “We heard you cry out, and when we got over here you were blinking up at us from the bottom of this pit.”  He squinted, and made some motions with his hands.  “It’s not too deep, but I’ll go grab a rope from the horses to help you out.”  He disappeared from the rectangle of sky that was Kiluron’s view, leaving just Fetrina to ogle at the hapless oaf in the pit.

               “Sorry to ruin your little trip,” Kiluron grumbled.  “Knew I shouldn’t have bothered.”

               “Shouldn’t have bothered with what?” Fetrina asked.

               “Anything,” Kiluron snapped.  At her pained expression, Kiluron regretted his words, and almost apologized.  Almost.

               Her tone carefully bland, Fetrina deliberately ignored Kiluron’s surliness.  “Well, since you decided to explore down there, why don’t you tell me what you see?  No point in letting an opportunity go to waste.”

               It would have been annoying, it should have been annoying, but somehow something about Fetrina’s expression made it just what Kiluron needed to hear.  He grunted, rolled his eyes, and looked around at the ruin into which he had fallen.  “Looks like there was some kind of trapdoor hiding the entrance, that’s what I fell through.  The shaft is only a little longer than I am, and made of the same stone blocks as everything else in this dilapidated place.  The floor down here is made of them, too.”

               Wincing, Kiluron managed to climb to his feet, having grown tired of sitting in a puddle of cold, dirty water.  “I’m in a chamber maybe three paces by three paces, and maybe two thirds my height; I couldn’t stand up down here, certainly, except in the shaft itself.  Hard to see much beyond that in this light; there’s no light except what’s coming in around your head.”

               Fetrina squinted.  “I wonder why whomever built this would have built a chamber of such dimensions.  Maybe it was just for storage?”

               “Could be.”  Kiluron frowned, and against his better judgement found himself growing curious, too.  “There’s some weird markings on the stone, like soot marks, and it looks like right around the shaft they’ve been chipped and blasted away, don’t know by what.  Could just be the stone deteriorating over time.”

               “Maybe there was a fire or something,” Fetrina suggested.  “Maybe that’s why this place was abandoned.”

               “Could’ve been attacked,” Kiluron suggested darkly.  “I wonder…”  He got on his hands and knees, and crawled around the perimeter of the chamber.  “There’s another opening over here that seems to slope down along the line of the cliff, at least from an arm’s length probing.  Maybe this was a bolt-hole of some kind.”

               Before either of them could discuss anything further, Doil reappeared with the rope.  “Perfect,” Fetrina said immediately, taking it from him.  “Now go put some torches together.  We’re going exploring.”

               Doil blinked, and looked down with a questioning expression at where Kiluron was kneeling at the bottom of the shaft.  Kiluron shrugged.  He wasn’t as keen on exploring as Fetrina was, but he was enjoying the bemused expression on Doil’s face.  It was good to be able to make him look like that again.  “Sure, why not?”

               After another pause, Doil returned with torches, tossing them down to Kiluron, beforing securing the rope to the top of the pit.  Fetrina lowered herself down, and Doil followed with considerably less enthusiasm.  By the time all three of them were down, Fetrina and Kiluron were obliged to kneel in the main chamber.  Fumbling with the flint and steel, Kiluron stubbornly refused Doil’s assistance in lighting the torches, and finally they were ready.

               Kiluron made immediately for the mysterious shaft, but Fetrina shook her head, and instead spent several rounds going over every corner of the initial chamber, searching for artifacts.  She found a few bits of metal of unknown origin, but nothing else noteworthy, and gave her consent to continue down the shaft.  Somewhat regretting that he had gone along with Fetrina’s suggestion, Kiluron crawling forward, leading the way into the passage.

               After barely three paces of crawling at a somewhat steep angle of descent, the trio came upon the remains of a grate that appeared to have once blocked the passage.  The grate itself appeared to have fallen downward, and was resting just beyond where it had once been firmly affixed into the stones.

               “Maybe this wasn’t a storage area.  Maybe it was a sewer,” Kiluron remarked, drawing a disgusted look from Fetrina.

               With a strong overtone of wariness, Doil poked at the rusted grate.  “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that some of these marks look like this was chewed upon by something.”

               “Don’t get jumpy,” Kiluron replied.  “What kind of animal chews on metal?”

               “That’s what I don’t want to know,” Doil muttered, but he allowed himself to be led onward down the passageway.

               It was difficult to hold the torches and crawl, so they ended up in a sort of awkward, crouched shuffle along the uneven floor of the ancient tunnel.  At least it gave Kiluron a plausible excuse for how much his torch was wavering; he hated the way his hands shook.  His sheathed sword banged and bounced and dinged awkwardly as he led, so that more than once he heard Fetrina yelp and draw up short to avoid being wacked.  He mumbled an apology and kept moving.

               “You know, this reminds me a little too much of the last time the three of us were crawling around in dark tunnels underground,” Doil muttered.

               “This isn’t anything like that time,” Kiluron asserted.  “For one thing, we’re doing it voluntarily.  For another, there’s nobody chasing us.”

               As Kiluron had predicted, the tunnel more or less followed the line of the cliff down the coast, trending ever downwards towards sea level.  Every dozen paces or so, it would jog sharply to one side or the other, before resuming its original course.  The first time, Kiluron assumed it was merely a structural feature, but as these jogs proved regular, he revised his opinion.  It seemed increasingly likely that this was a very carefully designed escape route for whoever had manned whatever the ruin had once been, an escape route for someone who was very worried about being chased by something large.

               Passing through another sharp jog in the passageway, Kiluron almost put his hand through the ribcage of a corpse, but yanked backwards, colliding with Fetrina, and his vision swam.  For a moment, the corpse appeared to be not a bare, crumbling skeleton, but a human, cowering and waiting for death.  He lost consciousness.

1500 Years Ago

               For half a breath, the storm paused, as if inclining its head in respect to an equal, before resuming with a force sufficient to make up for the moment it had lost.  Cruba cursed in her own language, and then yanked Eldri towards the darker mouth of a passageway in the darkness of the waypost chamber.  “Time to go,” she ordered, shoving him into the passage before her.  He slid a few paces before finding himself pressed up against a grate, which did not give until he felt Cruba reach around him to unlock it.  Then she was pushing him through and locking the gate behind them.

               It was immediately clear that Cruba could have bounded lithely down the narrow passage with her spear held low, and perhaps even given battle from such a stance, but Eldri was not so practiced nor so strong, and he was obliged to move clumsily upon hands and knees.  This he did as best he could, sensing Cruba’s urgency.  It wasn’t fear, exactly, but it was close to it, and anything that could bring this warrior-queen who defied gods and devils alike to the brink of terror was surely something that should have Eldri running his poor limbs to nubs.

               “What is it?” he asked between painful gasps for air.  The closeness of the tunnel seemed to make it impossible to get a proper breath, and he kept expecting the whole mass of the cliff above them to collapse and bury him in an unknown tomb forever.

               “Quiet,” Cruba snapped.  Then she relented slightly.  “Giant nearby.  Not sure if it’s for us or the dragon.  Don’t intend to find out.  Move.”

               The last was an urging that Eldri did not need; at the mention of a god approaching he was moving so fast that he nearly gave himself a concussion when he ran headfirst into an abrupt turning of the passageway, leaving the stone sticky with blood.  Feeling dizzy, he righted himself and kept going, though now with slightly less recklessness.

               A boom shook dust from the tunnel’s stones as Eldri and Cruba skidded around another jog, and Eldri winced and whimpered, but he did not stop moving.  Behind him, Cruba did pause, drawing a bronze knife from her belt and swiping it across her left forearm.  She wiped the blood across the top of the tunnel, and then kept moving.  Eldri wanted to ask what she had done, if she had really dared to use the power of the gods, as he suspected, but he was too frightened and too busy trying to move faster.

               More breathing that did not belong to either Eldri or Cruba began echoing down the tunnel, and Eldri whined with fear and felt his bladder beginning to leak down one leg.  His heart felt fit to burst out of his ribcage, and he wondered if just such a fate was not what awaited him if the gods caught him.  For that matter, he wondered what fate would await Cruba, and what kind of bravery it took for her to match her pace to his fumbling as they made their way down the tunnel.

               They had gone barely two jogs further when a cry of surprise echoed down to them, and Cruba stumbled in her motions.  Recovering, she picked up her spear again, and met Eldri’s wide, questioning eyes.  “Do not stop.  Whatever happens, do not stop.”

               Blinking, Kiluron shook his head, and regretted it as nausea washed through him and left him retching on his hands and knees.  He had dropped his torch into the lap of the headless corpse into which he had nearly thrust his hand, and it was now extinguished, so that he was only lit from behind by Doil’s and Fetrina’s torches.  Both of them were regarding him with concerned expressions.

               “What?” Kiluron asked.  “I’m fine.  Just a little headache.”

               “I think we should get back to the surface,” Doil suggested.  “You might have hit your head harder than we thought.  Or maybe the air down here is foul.”

               Fetrina nodded, with a sickened glance at the corpse.  “Very foul.”

               Kiluron rolled his eyes, though that made his head hurt, too.  “What you two want to turn around now, after all your talk about exploring these ruins?  This was your idea.  Well, I say we explore.  If you don’t want to come along, then give me one of those torches, and I’ll go on alone.”  He would not let them think that he had been disturbed by the corpse.  Bad enough if they thought he’d knocked his head too hard.

               “How does it always end up like this?” Doil muttered, but he nodded reluctantly, and Fetrina passed her torch up to Kiluron.  “Fine.  We’re not going to leave you to crawl around here on your own.”  Kiluron tried not to hear the implied “while you might faint again at any moment” that Doil didn’t append.

               It was better while he was moving.  When he was moving, he almost could forget about the tremble in his muscles, especially on his hands and knees, he didn’t need to worry about Doil bothering him about his health every other sentence.  Not that Doil actually did that, but Kiluron felt like he did.

               The whole trip had been Doil’s idea, arranged to “improve Kiluron’s health and wellbeing.”  Apparently, sea air was supposed to be very restorative, which didn’t make much sense to Kiluron, considering how much faster everything rotted and decayed near the ocean, but Doil was supposed to be the smart one.  Kiluron hadn’t wanted to accept the suggestion, but he also hadn’t felt like he could be an effective Prime in his current state, so he had agreed, if only to get away from the castle and all of its expectations.  Borivat could do a fine enough job in his absence; despite having suffered from the same illness, the old advisor had recovered without any of Kiluron’s lingering symptoms.

               Having Doil and Fetrina around seemed on the surface like a great idea, but Kiluron had found it more frustrating than restorative.  Doil always seemed to be always hovering, like he was some kind of fragile sculpture that needed constant monitoring in order to keep it safe and intact, and Kiluron tried his best to keep Fetrina at a distance so that she wouldn’t notice the weakness that had taken over him since the contaminant.

               “We’ve come a long ways down,” Doil mused.  “We must be nearly to sea level by now.”

               Kiluron glanced back.  “Probably.  The tunnel has started curving inland, though.  Not sure what to make of that; I thought it was going to dump us out by the ocean.”

               “As long as it doesn’t dump us in the ocean,” Fetrina remarked.

               As the trio continued to crawl, the slope of the tunnel began to level out, and to curve ever more sharply inland.  It also became more and more uneven and raw, the cut stone blocks replaced by packed dirt walls and channels chiseled through raw sandstone.  Rounding a definite bend, Kiluron pulled up short, finding himself confronted with the first fork since they had descended the initial shaft from the surface.

               “That way looks like it should bend towards the ocean,” Kiluron said, pointing to the left-hand passage.  “The other way looks to go further inland.”

               “Then we should probably take the left fork,” Doil determined.  Fetrina agreed.

               Kiluron frowned, wishing that thinking didn’t make his head hurt so much.  “I’m not so sure.  I’m pretty convinced this is some kind of bolt hole, and that means that it was probably built with the assumption that there might be people chasing you when you went down this passage.  The jogs are testament to that.  So if I were building this tunnel, I would make the apparently “right” way lead to some kind of trap, and continue along the apparently “wrong” way.  So I think we should take the right fork.”

               “I – alright,” Doil agreed.  “But let’s go cautiously.  Assuming I can’t convince you to turn around now?”

               “No chance,” Kiluron retorted, and set off down the right-hand fork.  Only a few paces on, they came upon a crumbling wall of stone that appeared to fallen haphazardly across the tunnel.

               Fetrina paused to examine the fallen stones.  “It looks like this way was blocked up.  Maybe we should have gone the other way.”

               “What’s beyond it certainly doesn’t look like a dead end that was bricked up.”  Kiluron gestured to where the tunnel split again having widened enough that all three of the companions could have crawled through it abreast.

               “Fine.  Right or left at this next fork?” Doil asked.

               Feeling slightly more confident, Kiluron moved forward to examine both choices.  He sniffed, and discovered that he could feel the stirrings of a breeze coming from the left fork.  “Right again, I think.  The left fork leads out to sea, but I don’t think in a way that we want.  We should go right.”

               Wordlessly, Fetrina and Doil followed as Kiluron led them down the right-hand fork.  This tunnel quickly began to climb sharply, then jogged several times before turned sharply and permanently to the right, driving hard inland.  Panting from the exertion of the awkward crawl up a steep incline, Kiluron crested the slope and pulled up short, finding himself in a squat, square chamber in which there was another corpse, the bones bleached by long exposure to the ocean air coming from the other passage.  There was also a handful of heavily corroded metal implements, and a golden amulet bearing an unfamiliar crest.

               “Not this way, I guess,” Kiluron admitted.  “Sorry.  You probably shouldn’t bother listening to me.  Ever.”  Being wrong shouldn’t probably have bothered him as much as it did, but in a moment he had gone from starting to feel useful again to feeling worse than useless.

               Fetrina paid him no heed.  She didn’t even seem to have attention to spare for the corpse.  Instead, she scrambled directly over to the amulet, bending over it and pushing her hair out of her face to get a clear view, her tongue sticking out slightly between her teeth.

               “This is a Nycheril artifact,” she breathed, “unless I completely miss my mark.  For the time period, that’s the only way such craftsmanship could exist here.  But how could it have come to be here?  And what does it mean?  One of these symbols looks a lot like ancient iconography for Heart City, but nothing else appears familiar.”

               Doil joined her in examining the crest.  “We should take this back to Merolate with us.  Some of the information that survived from the joint Heart City expeditions might correlate with this.  If not, maybe some of the scholars we’re hosting from the Isle of Blood will have some insight.”  He hesitated, and glanced at Kiluron.  “With your permission, my lord.”

               “Yeah, sure,” Kiluron agreed.  “Permission granted.  Let’s bring the pretty jewelry back.”  Reaching down, he snatched up the amulet.  As soon as his hand closed around the metal, his vision swam, and light blinded him as if he had stood up too quickly, more quickly than anyone should be able to stand.

1500 Years Ago

               His palms and knees abraded from frenetic crawling through the narrow tunnel, Eldri shuddered at the memory of stories told about what the gods could do to a person with just a drop of their blood.  He opened his mouth to ask Cruba if they ought to be more careful about what they left behind, but the grim set of her face forestalled his question, and he contented himself with continuing to press forward with as much speed as he could muster, even as his energy flagged.

               The back of his throat felt as raw as his hands and knees when he was brought up short by a junction.  Hesitating while his muscles seized, he looked back to Cruba for guidance.  Without any other prompting, she jabbed him down the right-hand passageway.  Just as the fork had almost disappeared behind him, Eldri heard a snarl, and glanced back in time to see Cruba skewer some dark creature, its shape not unlike a rat, but nearly as large as a man.  The beast writhed for a moment on the end of her bronze spear, and then burst into flames, dissolving completely until nothing but soot remained.

               Turning back down the tunnel, Cruba glared at Eldri, and snapped at him to keep moving; he leapt to obey, not sure if he feared her or the demons chasing them more.  He wondered how he had even come to be in this place, fleeing from the gods he ought to be worshipping.  Freedom wasn’t even a dream, it was a nightmare, and Eldri just wanted to wake up, but there was no way out except forward along this wretched course he had chosen.

               Another fork loomed ahead, and Eldri thought Cruba might have hesitated for just a moment before pointing him down the right-hand passageway.  From the left fork, Eldri could smell the fresh, briny sent of the sea, like a moist breath on his sweaty skin, but then it was cut off as he scurried in the opposite direction, feeling like he was leaving his chance of escape behind with every step.  Yet this was what Cruba had instructed, and he had no choice but to trust her.

               Just when Eldri began to think that he could not crawl any further in this interminable darkness, he nearly dashed his head upon a wall, and found that he had reached a dead end chamber.  Panicking, he turned around to find Cruba, but found that she was no longer right behind him.  Terror seizing in his chest, he panted uselessly in this death trap before beginning to scurry back up the way he had come, until he collided with Cruba.

               “There’s no way out, we’re stuck here, we’re trapped, we’re going to die,” he blubbered.  Cruba shoved him aside and continued down into the dead-end chamber.

               “I blocked the passage behind,” Cruba explained.  “They will think we went the other way, to escape.  When they have passed us by, we can go.”

               This did not entirely ease Eldri’s writhing panic, but he felt his breathing beginning to settle slightly.  He watched in amazement as Cruba nestled herself into one corner of the tiny chamber, put her head back, and appeared to doze.

               “I’m alright,” Kiluron insisted, shaking away the hands that were trying to reach out and steady him.  “I’m fine, really.  Just got dizzy for a second.”

               Doil and Fetrina were both peering at him.  Maybe they were just worried he was going to drop their precious amulet.  “I really think that we ought to return the way we came.  There’s no way of telling how much further it may be, and then we’ll still have to find a way to trek overland back to where the horses are.”

               Kiluron sighed, and rubbed his head.  Despite the dizzy spells, which he was not convinced were related, his head was actually feeling much better, and he thought he even noticed his hand trembling slightly less.  Or maybe that was because of how tightly he was clenching the amulet.  Trying to hide the unsteadiness, he hastily shoved the amulet into Doil’s hand, and put on a cloak of confidence.  He could still pretend, at least.  “No, we’ve come this far.  If we go back and take the left fork, we should come out on a beach or something by the sea, and easily make our way overland from there.”

               No one protested further, so he led the way back up the way they had come, until they reached the fork from which he had been able to smell the ocean.  Hoping he wasn’t about to be proven a complete fool again, Kiluron plunged down the left-hand passageway.  The cold, salt-water slicked stones stung his abraded palms, but felt oddly bracing after the stuffy confines of the other tunnels, even if this one was really no less confining.  The tunnel turned sharply to the left and grew increasingly steep, driving up a slope so aggressive that it was a challenge to climb, and then plunging down again.  From the apex, Kiluron thought he spotted a light.

               “I think I see the opening!” he called back to Fetrina and Doil.

               “Thank goodness,” Fetrina panted.  “I really cannot overstate how happy I will be to stand properly upright again.”

               Moving quickly, Kiluron made his way down the steep, treacherous, slime-slicked slope to the very mouth of the tunnel, and pulled up short, barely keeping himself from sliding right out of the passage and over the drop.  For there was a drop of at least twice his height, sheer and slick with the detritus of the sucking and seething sea outside.  The tunnel opened into a low cave in which the remnants of a pier could be seen, now eroded almost past recognition.  There was dark sand below the tunnel mouth, and it looked as if the whole cave was likely flooded at high tide.

               “I guess it’s time to turn around,” Kiluron began to say, turning to face the other way.  He therefore had a perfectly framed view of Doil slipping on the steep tunnel slope and sliding down to collide with Fetrina, who instinctively reached out to steady herself on the only thing that wasn’t a slimy rock: Kiluron.  Crouched just before the lip over the cave below, Kiluron wavered, lost his balance, tried to regain it, and then tumbled out of the opening onto the sand.

               He kept the presence of mind to roll when he landed, absorbing the impact with his shoulders and coming to rest with his head between his legs, shaking his hair out like a dog.  At least he hadn’t lost consciousness again.  When he had regained his composure, he looked up to see Fetrina and Doil looking down at him in consternation.

               “Don’t say it,” Kiluron held up a hand to forestall Doil’s burgeoning and effusive apology.  “Could’ve happened to any of us.”  Climbing to his feet, Kiluron approached the wall, looking at its wave-carven surface, and measured it in his mind.  “Alright, here’s the plan.  Doil, lie down on your stomach at the mouth of the tunnel, and reach your hand down.  Fetrina, could you lie down behind him and hold his legs?  Don’t try to use your muscles, just use your weight.  I’m going to try to jump up to grab your hand, Doil, and then you’re going to help pull me back up into the tunnel.  Then we’ll make our way back the way we came.”  He sighed.  “Really, this is all my fault.  If I hadn’t insisted on continuing…” he trailed off and shook his head.  This was hardly the time for recriminations.

               Backing up until his heels were being licked by the waves washing into the cave even at low tide, Kiluron set his stance, and waited for Doil and Fetrina to arrange themselves.  When they were ready, he took a deep breath, and burst into a full run, measuring his strides as he went so that he hit the sand at just the right place with his left foot to push himself up into the air, reaching as far as he could with his right hand as he flew.  His fingers brushed Doil’s, they both fumbled, and then Kiluron crashed against the cave wall and slid back down to the sand.

               “I’m okay, I’m okay,” he insisted, brushing himself off and backing up to his original starting point.  “We’ll try again.  This sand just isn’t the best surface for jumping.  I might need to sort of push off the wall a bit to get high enough.”

               Obeying his own instructions, Kiluron broke into a dash.  This time, he pushed into the air slightly closer to the wall, propelling himself with his right foot while his left foot sought the cave wall.  The leather of his boot squeaked on the wet rock, and he gained another two hand spans, but it wasn’t enough, and he crashed back down when he failed to grip Doil’s hand.

               “Why don’t I just go back out to the horses and get another rope?” Doil suggested, when Kiluron had recovered from his most recent fall.

               Glancing backwards, Kiluron noted that the mark from which he had started his run was now full of water.  “No time.  Tide’s coming in too fast.  I’ll be washed out to sea before you get back.”  Looking around the cave, Kiluron debated his options.  “You two head back.  I’ll find my own way out.  Maybe I can make my way along the edge of the cliff or something before the tide gets too strong.”

               “We’re not leaving you here,” Fetrina replied immediately.  “So none of that self-sacrifice stuff.”

               “It’s just good sense,” Kiluron insisted.  “No offense, but I have a better chance of making it out on my own that you two.”

               Doil sighed.  “I don’t like it, but he’s probably right.  We’d only slow him down.”  Fetrina grimaced in an apparent acknowledgement of the point, but did not relent.

               Kiluron backed away towards the mouth of the cave, until the soles of his boots were growing wet.  “Look, you guys go back to the surface, and make your way along the cliff.  I’ll meet you out there, I promise.”  Without waiting for any further debate, he turned his back on the tunnel mouth and plunged into the water, making his way to the mouth of the cave.  He didn’t turn back to see if Doil and Fetrina did as he had ordered, but he didn’t hear anyone drop down into the cave after him.

               Living by the sea, Kiluron knew all about tides.  Technically, of course, the tide was always either ebbing or flowing, and there were two high tides and two low tides each day.  That meant it took a quarter of a day for the tide to come in or go out, but that wasn’t always how it looked in a given place.  Flat, wide expanses of sand, or narrow mouths and inlets, could make the tide seem to come rushing in faster than a horse could gallop.  Once, when he had visited some tidal flats, he had seen a fisherman knocked down by the force of an in-rushing tide.  It all meant that staying in the cave wasn’t an option with the tide coming in, but it also meant that if he could get out where there was just the cliff, the force of the high tide would be less, and he might have a chance.

               With just a few steps, the water was up to his waist, and Kiluron almost paused to unbuckle his sword, but he wasn’t willing to abandon a tool that he might need.  Just as he reached the mouth of the cave, looking out into the mid-afternoon sunlight, a wave crashed over him, leaving him drenched and spitting out seawater.  Well, it had only been a matter of time, anyway.  Taking a deep breath before another wave could seize him and bear him back into the cave, Kiluron shoved off the bottom and homed for the edge of the cave’s mouth.

               It was only a few strokes, but the currents were twisted and writhing from the irregular contours, and Kiluron worried for a moment that he would be swept right out to sea or dashed against the rocks.  Relief was sweet when he felt the slick rock under his hands and he managed to clasp himself like a mussel against the mouth.  Then he was able to haul himself entirely out of the cave, finding tiny crevasses for handholds, and survey his options.

               Aside from the cave itself, the sandstone cliffs appeared sheer and unbroken in either direction, undulating as far as Kiluron could see.  The sea was a frothy, foamy blue-green, and seabirds wheeled in the sky; Kiluron hoped they weren’t wheeling for him just yet.  With a surge of his muscles, he managed to draw himself entirely out of the cave, and perched upon a tiny ledge, feeling like a spider clinging to the wave-slicked and smoothed rocks.  Just a few paces above his head, Kiluron could see where the sandstone was rough and pockmarked, perfect for climbing, but as far as he could reach had been rendered smoother than an expert carpenter could plane a board.

               When they weren’t merely tugging at him or buffeting him, Kiluron realized that the waves were pressing him up higher along the cliff with the waxing tide.  Making use of that, Kiluron began to painfully and hazardously make his way up.  Soon he was only up to his waist in the ocean.  Waiting for just the right surge, he released his handholds, and pushed himself as hard as he could up with the force of the incoming wave.  His hands and feet scrabbled for purchase on the wet rock, and he managed to gain it, enough to haul himself up onto a tiny shelf that he shared with a scraggly tree and a single seagull.  His whole body trembling now, Kiluron shivered despite the summer sunshine, and leaned back with his eyes closed.

               He did not give himself long to rest, however, for he did not care to be stuck on the exposed cliff face as night fell.  Once he had dried a little, and his muscles didn’t feel fit to tear themselves off of his bones, he forced himself to his knees to consider his next step.  He was high enough now that the waves had not worn this part of the cliff smooth, and he thought that he might be able to make his way to the top.  His only concern was where the lip of dirt at the top of the cliff overhung where he would be climbing.  Well, that and if he was actually strong enough to complete such a climb.

               Waiting would only leave him sorer from his previous exertions, so without waiting to think about the matter further, Kiluron began to climb.  The first part from his tiny shelf was nearly vertical, but there were enough hand- and foot-holds that he managed to scrabble up to where the slope became something slightly less severe; not walkable, but he could hug the cliff and sort of shimmy his painful way up without being as concerned with specific places for his toes or fingers.

               They key to this kind of climbing was momentum.  On long climbs with ropes and belayers, pausing at each point to contemplate the next move was an option, but not on this sort of free-climb scramble.  If he stopped moving, he would probably slide all the way back into the ocean, and dash himself to pieces on the jagged rocks.  No thought, no contemplation, no careful strategies: there was just Kiluron, the cliff, and climbing.  His vision narrowed with his focus, and he was only aware of the movement of his limbs and the rock they embraced, not even of the pebbles that he dislodged and sent tumbling down to the salty spray in a stony prophecy of his own possible fate.

               Four paces from the top, the rock became dustier and more reminiscent of soil.  It was more unstable, but now there were tree roots that Kiluron could grasp.  Half of those he grabbed tore away in his hands, but he just kept reaching for more, moving ever upwards, until he had hauled himself up and over the lip of the cliff and lay in the grass at the very edge, gasping for breath, covered in sweat, and looking up at a darkening evening sky.  With a deep sigh, he let his eyes drift shut.

1500 Years Ago

               Distant noises vibrated down the passageway to the dead-end chamber where Eldri and Cruba were hiding, and Eldri’s pulse quickened in response, though Cruba appeared to take no notice.  It didn’t make sense to Eldri that they were hiding in a place from which there was no other possible escape, but he had to trust Cruba.  She had surely done this before, sneaking other people out of the gods’ dominion to freedom in the mythical land across the sea.

               The noises receded, and for a time there was silence.  Even the silence felt heavy to Eldri in that absolute darkness.  He wondered what Cruba was thinking.  He wondered how long they were going to hide in that chamber.  He wondered if he was going to die this night.

               Scrabbling, as of claws upon stone, penetrated the darkness like pinprick stars in the ebony night, and Eldri heard Cruba sit up in sudden alertness.  The scrabbling retreated.  Then a roar, far too familiar to Eldri’s ears, rent the cloth of the darkness asunder; he clapped his hands to his ears and rolled upon the floor, crying for mercy.

               He might have continued in that state, but Cruba bashed his ribs with her spear shaft.  “Get up, coward,” she snapped.  “The ruse is up.”

               Then she pressed herself against the side of the chamber, and motions for Eldri to do the same.  They heard stone crack down the tunnel, and the sound of creatures charging down.  Another of the rodent-demons burrowed into the dead-end chamber and was pinned to the floor, dissolving under Cruba’s knife, even as she whirled in the confined space to stab the human slave who followed it; the blow severed a chain around the man’s neck as easily as it severed his life, and a golden amulet with the symbol of the gods preceded him to the ground.

               It all happened faster than Eldri could quite process, and barely had the corpse fallen before Cruba had wrenched free her spear and yanked Eldri from his stunned stupor down the passage after her, back the way they had come.  At the fork, Cruba wiped her blood across the opening again, and then dashed down the left fork, Eldri keeping pace as best he could.  They tumbled down a short drop onto wet sand, and drew up short.

               A boat was burning at a stone pier on the opposite side of the small cave into which the tunnel had led them, and two men were standing in front of it, thin swords held gleaming at their sides.  They bore the symbol of the Chosen, those who had given their lives to service of the gods, and in return had been granted power beyond that of mortal men.

               “We’re dead we’re dead we’re dead we’re dead,” Eldri whimpered.  No one escaped from the Chosen when they had been given a task.

               Cruba’s face was grim, and the fact that she did not contradict Eldri or call him a coward told him everything he needed to know about their chances.  Still, she set her stance, and readied her spear.  “Stay behind me.  If you see a chance, swim out to sea.  The ship we were supposed to meet may still be out there.”  She didn’t need to say how unlikely that was.

               “Nycheril dog,” one of the Chosen called, pointing with his sword.  “I am Predlu, Chosen of Galtra.  You will die for your defiance of what is right.”

               “And I am Keltro, Chosen of Galtra,” announced the other, also pointing with his sword.  Blood dripped from both of their necks, where amulets dug into their throats.  “You will die for your defiance of what is natural.”

               Grinding her front foot a little into the damp sand, Cruba lowered her body until she appeared like a panther on a branch, and bared her teeth at the Chosen.  She spat something in her own language at them, which Eldri did not understand.  Then she charged the Chosen.

               They met her in a flurry of steel, moving faster than any natural thing could move, but somehow Cruba’s spear was there to meet their blades, and it seemed to Eldri that she moved almost as fast as they did.  Sand whirled into the air like the chaos of blades; the Chosen were trying to flank Cruba, and she was twisting about, seeking to use the water to keep them from coordinating effectively.  If there had been only one Chosen, Eldri thought perhaps it would have been an even match.

               With the greater reach of her spear, Cruba spun in a circle, flinging water from the tip, and cleared a space for herself in which to breathe.  Eldri could do nothing but stare in wonder at this woman who even now, facing down two Chosen, showed no fear.

               “Run, fool!” she called, but it was not her words that broke Eldri’s stupor, but the sight of Keltro turning from Cruba towards him.  His terror lent strength to his limbs, and he broke into a sprint that soon had him splashing in the ocean.  A cry rose up behind him, and he expected any moment for Keltro’s blade to take him, but when he dared a glance back, he saw Keltro sprawled out on the sand, and Cruba dueling Predlu in earnest.  Then a wave washed over him, and he was swept out to sea.

               Footsteps in the undergrowth interrupted Kiluron’s late afternoon nap, and he reluctantly opened his eyes to see Fetrina and Doil making their way towards him.  He sat up with a groan: everything hurt, his muscles seemed barely capable of helping him make that small motion, and he dreaded the thought of standing up, much less walking.

               “Don’t look at me like that,” he accused Doil, as his advisor surveyed him with concern.  “I’m fine, just fine.  Can we get back to the castle?  I think I could sleep for a week, if I weren’t so hungry.”

               Fetrina helped him to his feet.  “You look terrible,” she said.  “You realize that this whole thing could have been avoided if we’d just made a rope out of our belts and drew you back up into the tunnel?  It would have been plenty long enough.  I would have thought of it if I hadn’t been so busy panicking.  I can’t believe I didn’t think of it.  What kind of an inventor could I ever hope to be, if I can’t think of simple solutions like that?”

               Kiluron paused in the act of limping over to the horses.  “Huh.  I should’ve thought of that.”

               “That’s what I just said,” Fetrina remarked.

               Once he had mounted the horse, which was itself a challenge, Kiluron shrugged.  Oddly, he felt in a better mood than he had before he had fallen out of a slimy tunnel, been pummeled by the ocean, and nearly died scaling a sheer sandstone cliff.  “Oh well.  Somebody had to make a decision, and here we all are, so I guess it wasn’t too bad of one.”

               It was a long and painful ride back to the castle, and it was fully dark by the time they reached it, despite the length of the days.  They ate dinner together once they had changed and cleaned themselves up from their adventures, and this time Kiluron found he had an appetite.  His hands still trembled a little while he wielded the fork, but it didn’t bother him as much as it had before.

               “Oh, I figured one of you would want to take this,” Kiluron said, placing the amulet from the tunnel on the table.  “I sure don’t know what to do with it.  Wonder what happened to those fellows we found down there.”

               Doil took the amulet gratefully, and tucked it away.  “I doubt if we’ll ever really know,” he said.  “That’s just not how archeology works.”

               Kiluron folded his arms.  “Well, then I’m just going to assume that whoever was bolting down that bolt-hole got to safety.”

               Only a profound exertion of willpower propelled Kiluron from his bed with the rising sun the next morning.  Over the protests of his body, he limped down to the courtyard, drew his sword, and closed his eyes.  Holding the sword before him, he began going through a careful series of exercises.  Whether the tremble would ever go away on its own or not, he didn’t know, but he did know that, like Vere always said, with time and practice he could learn to control his body.  This was no different.  And if he could do that, then maybe he still could manage to be Merolate’s Prime.

The end of Blood Magic S2:E8: Rest for the Weary. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the next episode in season two will go live on September 30th, 2021.

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