Chapter 27: Depths
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Tali.

Tali…

“Tali!”

I woke up to Cee calling my name, and lots of pain.

“What? What… happened?” I asked, trying to blink my eyes into focus.

I looked around the tunnel we were currently in, and up at the solid stone ceiling. “The ground opened up beneath us Tal, and closed just as quickly! You said the ghosts weren’t real!”

“They aren’t!” I hoisted myself to my feet with some effort. My limbs were battered, and my head swayed once I was upright again. Cee came to my side quickly, and threw my wing over her shoulders—she must have fared better in the fall.

“Then how do you explain this?” she gestured vaguely to the scene around us.

“I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation that has nothing to do with something silly like ghosts! Let’s just see if we can find a way back up.”

We hadn’t found any tunnels leading downwards on the expedition so far. The main tunnel we had spent traveling all day was fairly level, and none of the side tunnels had any particular depth to them either. The tunnel we were currently in was also more or less level as well, at least for as far as we could see in either direction. We came in from the east when entering the mines, so we want to go back that way and up. Maybe exit the mines through another shaft and circle back to the rest?

I groaned inwardly—I should’ve made a compass in preparation, but didn’t even think of it. This happened often with my memories of Eathun—there was knowledge there, but I couldn’t exactly search “Ten tips for your first mining expedition.” In addition to learning from mistakes, I often remembered from them.

Each step we took was a laborious one. Cee was fine, but I was slowing her down with my injuries. Probably a broken rib or two alongside whatever was going on with my leg—not too bad when falling from an unknown height, so maybe we didn’t drop all that far.

“Well, we found more metal at least,” Cee said inspecting the walls.

“Yeah,” I sighed in agreement, “And miners.” I pointed at the mostly decayed bodies just a bit further down. “You’re not scared of dead humans too are you?” I asked as we got near.

“I’m not scared just… they took you Tali! They took you away from us.” Her lips twitched a bit, like she still had more to say. Eventually she found the words to ask, “Doesn’t that make’s you angry? You’re just willing to forgive them? You brought them back as friends.”

“Vander had nothing to do with my capture, but yes, I have forgiven Alex. He knows better now.”

Her jaw tensed. “One of those two was directly responsible then.”

My mind started to scramble realizing my error at mentioning Alex’s involvement. “And how many humans have we taken from them?!” I deflected. “Where do the clutches come from? A Hesht and…?” I separated myself from Cee and started checking the body and its pack for anything useful.

“That’s different,” she said in a self-righteous manner. “How else are our people going to survive?”

It was a good question, and admittedly I tried to avoid thinking about the uncomfortable truth many times. We didn’t know our parentage, but our father must have been from some other race, and now he was likely dead—leaving behind family of his own.

In Phoenix’s time, it wasn’t an issue, but now the intelligent races saw us as monsters. Hostility between them and the Hesht was instant, and it went both ways. Getting Alex to come around took a long time, and even then was built on a foundation of me being captive and magically impotent. “I don’t know…” I admitted.

“Of course,” she sighed.

From the miners’ packs I pulled out a mallet and two chisels. I felt at the magnetic structure of them both: the mallet was a copper alloy—probably brass or bronze, I didn’t know the difference. The chisels were iron, rusted but solid. I stowed the tools away in my own pack and pulled it back on.

We continued making our way down the tunnel for another few minutes in silence before I asked a question that had been gnawing at me, “So, what happened between you and Kelz?”

Cee stiffened slightly, throwing off her step by a half-beat, “Now’s not really the time.”

“It’s the perfect time,” I countered. “Kelz and Inir won’t talk about it, we’re alone, and I want to talk. I can think of more uncomfortable questions if you prefer.”

She sighed and responded as we continued our trek down the unknown tunnel. “I just got busy, and we were just too close as chicks. It wasn’t healthy, and a distraction.”

I scoffed, “Says who? I always thought the two of you were a force.”

“A great chief puts the village as a whole above her clutch. So should a great Blessed.”

“I see…” I said sadly. She was only half right according to Jiju, who says a great Blessed should be above the concerns of a single village. I disagreed with both. “Do you miss her?”

“Yes…” she admitted with a somber tone.

“Then why do you want to be our Chief if it means being apart from her?”

“There’s no greater calling for a Hesht, Tali. I can give our people a good life, help the village prosper, keep our young safe from those that might want to harm them, take them away like you were.” She brought us to a stop, entangled as we were. “Why? You want to be chief?” she asked, suspicion evident.

I had zero qualms about putting the question to rest. “Gods no! Not interested.” I made sure to play up the look of disgust on my face, it wasn’t hard. The title and responsibilities seemed like a hassle at the very least.

I patted her hip lightly with the wing she wasn’t supporting. “I think you’d make a great Chief… I just want to know you again Cee, and I want you to know me. However, I will always put you above the village—my sisters. If that makes me a poor Blessed, then I don’t care.”

Knowing about the cycle of souls didn’t make an individual lifetime any less precious to me. This life was still the only one I’d be able to share with my sisters, and I wanted to be greedy. If to be Lightblessed means following the beat of my own drum, I was allowed to be that selfish.

“You should care!” Cee cried. “Gods Tali, if I had your Blessing I could be one of the greatest chiefs in Hesht history. Meanwhile you…” She bit her lip and shuffled. “I don’t mean—“

“It’s okay,” I cut in. “Having opinions on the best way to use my gifts makes you just like the rest of the clutch. But you don’t need to be Blessed to be a great chief. Hell, if you were, Chief Getra would probably never have taken you under her wing. I’ll stay the Princess, you can be the Queen.”

She didn’t respond immediately as we continued trekking the tunnel again. She looked thoughtful for a time, then asked, “Why is it you don’t want to make the weapons? You said I don’t see the downside.”

How could I explain this to a person who has never seen large scale conflict or war? The deadliest wars in Earthun history were a result of advancing weaponry, which took more life with less training. Soldiers of war could be sent to the front lines with months of preparation instead of the many years that the martial arts required.

“I’m worried that even if the Chief’s desire for these weapons is to deter conflict with the humans, it will have the opposite effect. We’ll draw attention to ourselves, or the Chief might decide that if we have the power to eliminate the humans at Redwall, we should become the aggressors.

“Hesht that have never held a spear could be encouraged to fight, and many would die.” I clenched my fist hard enough that if my claws were sharp, I’d have another serious injury to deal with. “I don’t know if I can handle the burden of knowing that things I create could mean the end of our village as we know it.”

“Chief Getra has no interest in looking for a fight with the humans. She wants to be prepared in case they come for us. They must know our village is nearby… What if they come back to take more of your feathers? What if they want to force us out of these lands? We need to be ready for a threat like that.”

“And what if a [criminal] gets their hands on one?”

“What?” she said confused, “[Cri-mi-nal?]”

“Well…” Come to think of it, I couldn’t think of a Hesht word that really fit. I haven’t heard of any crimes committed in the village… Theft—what would someone steal, food? They could just go to Hatchome if they needed some of the communal hunt.

Furniture and art were the closest things to objects of desire… but what made art special to us Hesht was the sentimental value it carried. And furniture—well not like you could keep that a secret. They would be ostracized, at worst, but most likely such a thief would find themselves the subject of concern. There weren’t that many Hesht in the village…

There were words for “rule” but nothing as rigid as “[law].” We had warriors, but no [police].

Have my memories of the last life impacted me more than I thought? Even the idea of a war of aggression, and to eliminate a potential future threat before it could become an actual one—was that a distinctly human one? Or maybe just an Earthun one? If it was the former then maybe Cee was right, and we do need weapons to defend ourselves. “I think you may be right—” I began.

My contemplations were interrupted by a now familiar howl that made chips of rock rumble on the floor. Cee and I shared a look, and turned our eyes back to the tunnel—the debate would have to wait. She reached out to me but I shook my head and tapped into Enhancer. “I can walk, let’s move quickly.”

———

“Hey, I think I see light ahead!” Cee said.

I narrowed my eyes, there was a faint lighting to the tunnel pouring in from somewhere beyond the next curve. We shared a look of relief that no matter where we’d ended up, the sky and freedom was ahead.

We rounded the turn and drank in the fresh air coming in from beyond. “There’s the opening!” I said with relief seeing the soft pale green light of the moon pouring in. Whatever was causing that noise and trapped us down in these tunnels could remain a mystery.

When we came to the opening, we saw an astounding sight, and one I couldn’t immediately explain. The opening exited to a valley, yet one arranged in a way that was just… wrong.

Cee’s breathing picked up, her voice became shaky. “What happened to the sky? It’s below us!” I felt Cee’s body shudder against mine as her legs went weak.

I knelt at the edge of the tunnel, and peered over the edge. Below us was an infinite drop, the moon and stars far below the inky depths of the night sky. I swung my head around, finding that the trees were growing out of the ceiling. A lesser bird flew from one to the other—upside down.

No, it wasn’t that the valley was upside down… “We’re upside down!” I shouted to Cee, confusion starting to build for me too. After a moment of thought, I grabbed a rock off the floor, or maybe it was the ceiling, and threw it out the tunnel and into the valley.

I watched as the stone sailed out of the opening and went down towards the open sky. It continued to fall, or possibly rise—depending on perspective, until it went beyond a ridge and I lost track of it. Whatever was happening, it didn’t stop after leaving the tunnel. Cee was on the verge of hyperventilating, and I was fighting to urge to do the same. I shook her by the shoulders, she looked up at me in a daze.

“Stay with me Cee,” I pleaded.

She pointed behind me, down the tunnel from the direction we came, and rounding the corner was a creature like I hadn’t seen in two worlds. It was most like a snake, reptilian in nature, but having no limbs and huge. Instead of scales like expected though, it was coated in jagged plates of stone—and it was wriggling its way towards us, its girth nearly filling the tunnel as it approached.

I took a step towards the approaching beast, putting Cee behind me, and with a deep breath sprayed a cone of raw lightning down the tunnel. It crackled its way through the air and licked at the creature—but to no effect. It was earth-aspected and quite literally grounded, making it a terrible matchup.

I pulled Cee’s spear from where it was tied to her pack and pushed it into her hands. “Cee. Cee!” I yelled, she was unresponsive. “If you ever want to be ‘Chief Cee’, you can’t die here!” I jerked her up to her feet and pointed her at the creature that crawled its way along the ceiling.

She looked down the tunnel, then to me, then back to the creature. With a deep breath, she steadied herself and pounded her chest with her fist. Bringing her spear to bear she asked, “Can you escape?”

“Escape? I’m not going to leave you.”

She clenched her jaw, and said, “Like it or not, you are irreplaceable. I have to ensure you, the Lightblessed, make it back safely. That’s my duty.”

I scoffed at her attempted martyrdom. “I’m not going to leave you!” I rejected her premise strongly. “Just… I need a minute to figure this out.”

She took a few tentative steps towards the beast, “What are you going to do?”

“Back you up.” I set my pack down and pulled out what was left of my ironsand powder. Cee nodded back and began moving back down the tunnel, tilting her spear up at the direction defying beast. Her steps began to take on the sureness that she displayed when we fought onboard the Rings pitch, her warrior training taking over.

Using my spellbraids, I started compacting the ironsand into a small sphere. In order to turn the powder into a solid mass, I had to pump a lot of mana into it. I strengthened the magnetic fields, hoping the sheer force of attraction could overcome the uneven structure of the barely crystalline material.

Meanwhile, when the distance between Cee and the creature had shrunk to only a half-dozen wingspans, its movement changed from a crawl to a charge. If Cee was still uneasy, I couldn’t tell from here as her spear lunged out to meet her opponent. A scraping sound reverberated through the tunnel with the attack. Her spear had deflected off the tough hide of the beast—stone on stone.

The beast pushed past her weapon and rammed her, battering my sister back. She slammed into the tunnel wall, rolling and adding her own back-steps to the momentum to regain a bit of distance and her stance. The conditions were terrible for our spear-fighting style, with no real room to flutter or fly, and clearly the hide didn’t just look like stone—it wasn’t camouflage, it was stone-skin.

The sphere I was working on began to deform slightly—Cee’s battle was a distraction... I just had to trust her. I wasn’t great at non-lightning mana control, but I added a bit of raw fire mana in, drawing it from the ambient flow and adding energy to the ironsand molecules. It helped align the micro structures and pack more tightly—and the tighter the molecules packed, the greater the strength of the magnetic forces that bonded it. It took nearly a minute to finish crafting my ammo, but it was as solid as I could make it.

I looked back up at the skirmish in the tunnel and found Cee had fallen back much closer to my position at the opening—she was breathing heavily, and her stance was starting to get sloppy.

I placed the ironsand sphere between my elbows, and pointed my arms towards the earth-serpent, splaying my wings to the sides. “I’m ready!” I shouted. My sister tightened up her stance, and lunged out with the spear again. This time her strike drew blood, finding purchase in the eye of the beast.

Cee let go of her spear, unable to pull it free before the creature recoiled in pain. “Move!” I yelled, and she hurriedly pressed her body flat to the side of the wall. Using my braids, I lined my arms with a series of magnetic fields, the same concept that would make the railgun work. Pulled by my spell, the ironsand sphere moved faster and faster down the length of my limbs. It shot clear past my wrists, and by the time I was even able to register the small sonic boom it created, I had hit the mark. It carved its way through the wyrm’s armor under its jaw thanks to how Cee sent it reeling first.

Cee looked at me mouth agape for a moment, then pushed herself back off the wall and squared up against the creature, claws bared. We watched in anticipation as it reeled from the new injury, oozing blood from both the eye Cee struck and the newest wound I inflicted. It backpedaled and slumped slightly against the ceiling, then suddenly I started to feel lighter. That lightness feeling turned to falling quickly as up and down reversed, putting things the right way now. Neither my sister or I landed gracefully, and the loose stone that fell along with us pelted us, but we found our feet again quickly.

I clapped my hands together in excitement, “Looks like this thing was responsible for the gravity after all.” It wasn’t dead though, only disrupted. It shook and shuffled as it regained its composure. I clicked my tongue in frustration, its body was too bulky for the small sphere to put it down for good.

Cee looked back at me, and to the tunnel opening beyond where things looked right again. She started running towards me, “I can fly us out now!”

“No!” I held up my hand to stay her. “We wont be able to finish our mission if we let this thing be. It could grab one of the others.”

“How are we supposed to fight it now?” she yelled louder than necessary—she was still unable to calm her demeanor completely. Her face showed her displeasure at the idea of not escaping immediately. It made sense, she would be able to fly us now that the disorienting gravity effect was dispelled. But I’d rather know this thing would be gone if we’re going to spend another day mining. With us finding the tools we needed as well, I was determined we could still make this mission a success.

It was then that gravity began shifting again as the tunnel, or from my perspective the world began tipping towards the beast. It spread wide its maw as the tilting increased. My sure-footing became awkward leaning, then sliding. I could sense the earth mana swirling about thanks to the creature’s confounding magic. I looked to Cee who continued to stand still at what was an increasingly impossible angle to my eyes. Maybe it no longer had the strength to affect us both, but that gave me little comfort now as my sliding put me further from Cee and closer to the beast.

“Tali! What are you doing?” I heard Cee shout. She didn’t understand forces of gravity like me, or understand magic the way Alex would, and I had a hard time blaming her for thinking I was moving toward the foe under my own power. In my reality, I was nearly falling.

Damnit just bleed out already! If only my attack hit something more vital… At that moment inspiration struck, but I needed to get closer so I let the slide continue—not that I had much choice. Readying an improvisation of the magnet spell, I gathered all the lightning mana I could adding ambient flow to my own. There was more here near the opening than where we initially fell, and I breathed in the mana greedily. Channeling into my braid, I began tweaking the spell on the fly, manipulating the mana at the braid’s core feather.

Sliding towards the waiting jaws of a beast such at this wasn’t the best condition for some Hesht Magic improvisation, and I struggled to focus on the spell and not possible death. I wasn’t ready to leave my sisters behind to see Luna again though, not yet!

When I was only a wingspan away, I clawed into the floor hard with enhanced talons, much the way Ghisé had when she leg swept me in our first fight. I focused on my target for the spell—the ball of iron still lodged somewhere in the head of the creature. Loosing my spell I turned the attractive forces that bound it together into repulsive ones, effectively exploding it and spreading shrapnel through its insides.

As if a switch flipped, “down” corrected once more, the earth mana stopped swirling, and I fell flat onto my back. It ached, but when I turned my head to look at the creature, it was completely still—not even a twitch.

My heavy breathing slowly turned to laughter as Cee finally caught back up to me and the now felled beast.

“What are you laughing about? That was crazy Tali!” she shrieked.

I groaned and grinned, “I think I made a flower even more beautiful than Vander’s.”

Though I made mine from iron, that did nothing to diminish my satisfaction.

 


 

A kind author reached out to me last week about a mutual shout out... and though I had to read the series myself first, I can happily recommend this one.

Synopsis

Debated as one of the best players of all time in the competitive VRMMO 'Champions of Andartha,' Yuusha 'the Untouchable' suddenly disappeared from the pro scene without a trace. Years later, at the height of the game's popularity, a chance meeting with an up-and-coming streamer draws her in once more to their world. Will this fateful encounter rekindle her competitive spirit to rise once again and reclaim her former glory?

———

As a former mythic WoW raider, and terrible current LoL player who nonetheless watches LCS and LEC, I was excited to check out this e-sports story. I enjoyed learning about the game system used in the story, and I didn't mind cute girls gushing over cute girls either ^^

I won't spoil the heavy moments, but I really loved seeing the MC fall in love with her pastime once more. If you're looking for a new series and are looking for some yuri harem disasters, well developed teens facing their own barriers to the game they love, or both, then check out Untouchable.

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