Chapter 5: Blood and Fire in Erastil’s Domain
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Kono:

 

The darkness of the cave was a relief to Kono’s tired eyes.  She reckoned the goblin’s also felt at ease in the faint light of the tunnel.  Unbeknownst to them, Kono would have an easier time spotting any traps in the darkness.  A clumsy stumble and the clatter of loose stones told her all she needed to know about how Amelia was handling the darkness.

I’ll need to point out any traps for her.  A light spell would let her see more easily but I’d rather not waste the mana.  Magic would be better spent on what’s ahead.  Kono stopped in her tracks and turned back to the girl while pointing down at a barely exposed bear trap.  The rust on it alone would be enough to end anyone’s adventuring career, let alone the part where it snapped your leg off.  Amelia nodded grimly in response.  Kono watched with mild fascination as the girl's pupils slowly grew.  The drow felt a peculiar pang in her chest at the sight of the frightened Amelia.  

As she continued descending into the shrine, Kono considered these strange feelings. That was fear in her eyes.  Why do I find it so tantalizing?  Do I enjoy protecting her?  Or perhaps it’s the control: a natural instinct to take pleasure from fear.  

Kono paused again to point out a thin tripwire whose greasy string barely reflected the faint light.  No, I'm quite familiar with that particular pleasure.  This is something different.  This is unnatural.

At this point in their descent the tunnel evened out.  Tiny shafts of light shone through small gaps in the ceiling, and ,despite their size, they somehow illuminated the tunnel fully.  This light is natural, but it’s enhanced by some kind of lens meticulously placed in each crack.  What kind of place is this to deserve such reverence?  

Kono risked a glance up into one of the cracks and quickly turned away to avoid the blinding light within.  Any looter worth her salt would have pilfered these lenses.  The sale value alone would be worth ten times what I’m making from this job.  

Kono turned back to check on her companion.  Amelia appeared quite fascinated by something painted on the flat wall.  The way she bent forward to get a closer look framed her body nicely in the magic light.  Alas, looting would break contract, and if that drow didn’t steal them then she’s either ignorant or here for something far more valuable.

If they were going to be ambushed it would have happened by now.  Kono decided to take some time to see what struck Amelia’s fancy so suddenly.  Kono gazed over Amelia’s shoulder.  The girl was studying some kind of ancient iconography on the flat wall.

“Look here Kono, isn’t it strange how this wall is so flat?  And these images… They show a cycle, but it’s strange.”  Amelia thought aloud as she ran her slender fingers along the wall.

Kono inspected them herself from a distance.  The pictures were ancient but they weren’t crude.  A circle of icons in the center showed the life of a tree from seed to fallen log, and circling that was the cycle of a stag from birth to death to dust.  The goblins had scribbled their own little green figures spearing the stag at all levels of its life.  A similar cycle but for humans was displayed around the stag circle, and the final circle showed the phases of the day from dawn to dusk then dawn again.

“It’s strange” Amelia mused.  “The cycles aren’t in sync with one another.  In fact they’re even a little misaligned in some places.”  The girl pressed her palms against the stone and pushed with a light grunt.  The stone gave way and began to turn as a small cloud of dust fell out from between the turning stone.  “Aha!  It’s a dias!”  Amelia wrinkled her nose and sneezed from the particles which made her helmet bounce a little on her head.  “A turning stone!”  Her voice was nasally.  “It must be some kind of puzzle, or a meditative way to worship.”

Kono too was fascinated by the find.  Perhaps more so that the girl had noticed something she hadn’t.  The drow rubbed her chin a little in thought.  “You’d think the enemy would have found this by now.”

“They were too busy scribbling on it, so neither the goblin nor the drow noticed what this was.  That’s just another clue for us.  Every advantage right?”  Amelia turned and smiled at Kono like she already had all the answers.  

Is she imitating the way I was back at the dung clearing?  Annoying… cute, but annoying.  Kono gave in.  “Alright Amelia, what’s the advantage?”

The girl giggled to herself in pure joy.  “Look here, on the outside, it’s the sun rising and falling from day to night.  And on the inside we have birth and death.  Everyone knows that a seed turns into a tree, but there’s a pattern here that our goblin and drow friends wouldn’t know off the top of their heads.”  Amelia stepped back so Kono could get a better look.  For the first time that day Kono felt like she wasn’t at an advantage.

“So we match the dawn with birth, simple enough.”

“Not that simple, the dawn has to happen at a certain spot.  Someone who hasn’t lived on the surface their whole life wouldn’t know it without thinking.  Watch.”  Amelia turned the outer dias until the dawn was exactly on the eastmost point of the circle.  A light click came from within and some ancient mechanism caused the whole wall to move to the side with an eruption of dust.

They both stepped back and covered their mouths.  When the dust settled Amelia’s now dust covered face was all smiles.  “See?  The sun rises in the east!  It was a compass!”

Kono was quite impressed, but not quite sure how to show praise.  A head pat maybe?  A light smile?  She opted to just raise her arm as a gesture for Amelia to go first.  The girl practically hopped at the invitation and eagerly moved through the new doorway.  Kono followed behind, keeping that light smile to herself.

 

The room itself was a small bedchamber.  The furniture was sparse with only a double bed on one wall and a small bookshelf on the other.  The shelf doubled as a dresser and storage for texts.  Amelia wasted no time moving to read the spines, but the sight of the bed’s occupants made her freeze.  Kono came up behind her fearing trouble, but the two skeletons that lay there were long dead.

Kono recognized the robes folded neatly at the foot of the bed.  “These were priestesses of Erastil.  I remember seeing this kind of iconography seventy or so years ago.  These people must have been killed in the purge.”  Her voice was low as she looked at the skeletons more closely.  “I don’t see any signs of violence.  Perhaps they shut themselves in here to die on their own terms.”  Kono bit her lip a little.  There it was again, that creeping sting of guilt.

Amelia didn’t look at the bodies for long.  Kono wondered if the girl had seen enough death for one day.  Or maybe she’s already numb to it.  Amelia returned to the books, glancing them over while she mouthed out the titles written on the spines.

“Verdant Conception of Mana In Erastil’s Divine Light… Offensive Applications of Floral Arcana… Whoa… These are spell grimoires!”  Amelia was practically gyrating with excitement.

Kono plucked one off the shelf herself.  “Giggles and Glitter: Fae Charms To Flitter Your Titter… Ugh, gnomes.”. Kono made a mental note to read that one later.  As much as she disliked it, gnome magic often had its uses.

“Look there’s something behind it too, another dias.”  Amelia had crawled up on the dresser portion of the shelf now, and was once again entranced in another puzzle.  Kono knew when to let the specialists work.  Fearing another puzzle walk through the drow decided to rifle through the drawers below.  They were filled with clothes that had long since withered away.  A certain piece caught her eye; a silk white dress of obvious quality.  Its fit was for a young woman, someone special.

Verdant Conception indeed.  So that’s what this shrine is.  A place of power for mana conception to be performed.  No wonder it’s been forgotten.  She quickly stuffed the small dress into her pouch.  She’d rather not Amelia realize the implications of this place.  Why shouldn’t she, and why hide the dress?  Why do I keep second guessing myself?

With a familiar click and billow of dust Amelia had figured out how to open the hidden compartment.  The girl exclaimed as Kono stood up to see what lay within.  She couldn’t help but gasp as well; inside the compartment was a small pile of shining green emeralds.

“I’ve never seen anything like this!  Gems!  Real gems!”  Amelia looked back to Kono with a beaming smile.  Her face and hair were absolutely covered in dust.

“They must be catalysts for green spells.  This is quite a valuable find.”  Kono took one out and inspected it closely.  The gem glittered brightly in the light, and its deep green was practically entrancing.  Not a bit of light within.  This gem is virgin with no spell or enchantment inside.  Quite valuable.  

“So uhh, we can take these right?”  

“Well this is the lord’s forest after all.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“And it’s not like he said you couldn’t hunt it.”

“I’ll be sure to give back his emeralds. If he comes asking about them.”

“Of course.”

“If.”

 

“This place must be very old.”  Kono mused to herself as she ran her fingers along an ancient painted image.  The ones further up the tunnel walls were less likely to be besmirched by the goblins, for obvious reasons.  The two had opted to leave the loot behind for now, after all they could easily pick it back up on the return trip.  

The further they traveled the thicker the air became, but it wasn’t just with dust.  They came to old brickwork that had been laid in many centuries ago.  Kono felt the hairs on the back of her neck tingle from mana in the air.
“It seems this place is more than just a convenient hideout for them.  This is an ancient place of power.”  Kono said while she idly waved her hand through the air.  The mana felt like static electricity it was so thick.

“I don’t sense anything.”  Amelia replied, her voice hushed.

“That’s because you haven’t undergone the ritual.”

“Is this the power of the gods then?”
“Nothing so grandiose, the power here comes from the flora.  Trees, flowers, fungus, all of them create mana.  This place is some kind of natural congregation point of mana, mana that hasn’t been harvested for quite some time.”

“Like a really big, ripe, magic melon.”

“It certainly wasn't coincidence that brought that drow here.”

“I just don’t understand how a place this important could be wiped out and forgotten.”

“Fear is a powerful weapon, and the people feared what this place could create.”

“So they decided to purge a bunch of innocent priestesses?  Lock them in their beds until they starved?”

“It wasn’t the priestesses or the mages they feared, it was who was controlling them.”

“And who was tha-'' Amelia stopped her thought when she realized who she was talking to.  They continued the rest of the way in silence.

There were no goblins to challenge them as they moved further through the tunnel.  The stone was broken up by roots of various species.  The further they got in, the thicker and more numerous the roots became.  The tunnel eventually opened out into a sunlit grotto.  Its ceiling of dirt was cracked, allowing pillars of light to shine through and brighten the interior.  The largest roots snaked their way through the open area, culminating at a final small shrine. 

It bore the antlers of Erastil and a stone slab that looked older than anything else that came before.  In front of this display is where Kono finally found her quarry, a drow fitted in familiar lamellar armor.  She wasn’t alone either.  A bugbear stood between Kono and the drow.

Kono motioned for the girl to hide.  Amelia kept to the shadows.  She crept along the outskirt of the grove hidden amongst the roots. 

The fiend was eerily quiet as it approached Kono.  It wielded a gnarled club and wore a grin full of sharp teeth dripping with menace.  Kono did not back down, she approached the evil thing head on while drawing her scimitar with a similar grin.  The other drow stood silent.

Seems she thinks the bugbear can take me.  I doubt she even knows what I am yet.  

Kono reached for her crossbow with her free hand, it was loaded with a very special bolt. Bugbear skin is as thick as tanned leather.  I’ll need an opening.  

But finding one would not prove easy.  The bugbear was tall. It would be almost twice Kono’s height if it stood up straight, but it walked hunched forward and its poor posture naturally protected its throat.  Very well then, perhaps some diplomacy.  

Kono stopped and raised her sword toward the bugbear.  She breathed in deep and let out the most ferocious yell she could.  The fiend stopped as well, raising its own far larger weapon and giving a far louder warcry.  

The bugbear’s reply would be cut short however.  Kono shot her bolt directly into the creature's waiting maw.  The bolt head stuck to the roof of its mouth and the psychedelic did its work.  The club hit heavily against the ground, and the fiend fell on its back shortly thereafter shaking and spasming as the Subtennebrae poison filled its veins.

Kono lowered her sword, and now shot her grin at the enemy drow.  At this distance she could see the way the mage’s face twisted from shock to fear to anger as Kono sliced the bugbears throat with a single swing.

The drow quickly snapped back into focus and pulled something from her reagent pouch.  

Let me guess, sulfur.

The drow mage raised her hand, her fingers tracing arcane sigils in the air. A spark ignited at her fingertips, quickly swelling into a swirling orb of unnaturally crimson flame.  The fireball launched straight at Kono, but she was ready for this act of desperation.

Kono moved forward quickly, and with her scimitar she sliced vertically at the ball.  The fiery orb split in two with a crackling hiss.  Arcane flames burned red hot in a violent explosion around Kono, but the protective spell she had cast earlier caused the hungry heat to ignore her, creating a fiery halo around her.  

The heat was only one aspect of the spell, next came the explosion.  Splitting the fireball in half was enough to weaken the impact, but nothing could be done to nullify it.  Kono was flung violently to the ground.

She loosened her posture and allowed herself to roll with the impact so as to avoid breaking any bones.  When the violence was over, Kono lay on her stomach.  A few bits of grass were on fire around her but when the smoke cleared it was obvious to her enemy that Kono remained unharmed.

“An adjudicator serving humans.  You’ve fallen far, exile.”  The mage’s voice rang throughout the grotto.  Despite the failure of her powerful spell she still spoke with confidence.

Kono got up to one knee.  “Kidnapping village girls and consorting with goblins, and I’m the one who’s fallen?”

“The humans are patriarchal chattel who abandoned the gods.  We are their punishment, or have you forgotten that?”

Kono stood up now, sword in hand.  “The war is over.  We lost when the Subtennebrae was sealed.  And here you are terrorizing villagers like a goblin, which isn’t surprising, given your current company.”  

“Has the sun dulled your senses?  I’m not here to sow terror, I'm here for power.  Look around you, this place is ripe with it.  The humans would let this mana go to waste!”

“This is green magic, what power is there here for a drow?”

The mage chuckled to herself, and drew a sharp warpick from a table beside her.  “I’ll put the magic here in that girl's belly, and then siphon it for myself.”

“You’d taint your color with surface magic?”

The mage stepped within dueling range with Kono.  She gripped her warpick in a steady hand.  “Power is power, exile.”

“There are laws older than either of us that forbid this.”

“And those laws are why you failed.  Humans deserve no quarter.  After I’ve beaten you, and finished fucking you into submission, I think I’ll sell you to a brothel.  Then you can spend the rest of your pathetic life on your knees doing what comes natural: serving humans.”

Kono rolled her eyes and inspected her scimitar.  The blade was heavily chipped on the edge, but the fireball had burned away any imperfection in its gleam.  Kono brought her sword down to a low guard as she spoke her reply.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve spilt sister-blood.  Scant are the moments of true pleasure.”

The two slowly circled one another, waiting for the other to make the first move.  The mage watched Kono’s sword; Kono watched the mages lips.  Kono brought up her sword to feign a high attack, and saw what she was looking for.  The mage brought her teeth to her lower lip, forming the beginnings of a syllable.  Kono quickly brought down her sword, turning the blade to shield her eyes.  

The mages flare spell came out just as the sword reached its apex, and the blade's perfect sheen reflected the light completely into the mages unexpecting eyes.  This single moment of surprise and blindness was all Kono needed to land a killing strike; slashing open the mages throat as she recoiled from her own spell.

The mage dropped her weapon and grabbed at her throat, falling to her knees and then to the floor as the blood escaped into the soil of the grotto.  Kono looked down at the dying drow, and only then as the mage let out her last gurgled breath did Kono realize she hadn’t even learned her name.  No matter, it will be forgotten anyway.

 

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