Approach to the Treasury
Morning seemed to come early, especially in this place where the darkness never retreated unless driven back by torch or lamp. But Oro insisted it was almost daylight outside, and no one held any illusions about how constructive it would be to argue with him, so the group sluggishly went about packing up the bedrolls and making a cold breakfast.
“Same plan as yesterday,” Oro declared unceremoniously while most of them were still eating, snapping his fingers to summon the kobolds, “We’re going ahead. Catch up quickly.”
Sarahi sighed as he and the little creatures vanished into the dark. “I swear, he seems desperate to see daylight again, but his attitude makes me think he’d be more comfortable in a dark hole.”
Nayeli nodded in agreement, but not for quite the same reasons. “He’s never been fond of caves,” she observed, “But that’s largely because there’s not much here for him to eat that has...flavor. Animals and the undead are only slightly better than rocks and sticks to his sense of taste. But he was never this hurried on any of our previous missions. It’s not the dark, or the rock...something else is bothering him. And I don’t know what,” she admitted with a note of concern.
“Well...actually, I can’t blame him on that count,” Sarahi noted, finishing her sandwich and getting to her feet, “I’m looking forward to a hot meal again, myself. Maybe he’ll be more talkative once we’re outside.”
The priestess did not seem convinced, but answered with a grateful smile for the attempt to console her. “Perhaps.”
They gathered their things quickly and filed into the next portion of the tunnel. It was a mostly quiet walk, as everyone continued to fight sleep encouraged by the quiet and dim lighting. Tuli and Sarahi struck up a whispered conversation while Nayeli was lost in her own concerns about Oro. The priestess was tempted to join them, for the sake of keeping her own head clear, but overheard a whisper of her own name, followed by some remarks about the texture of fur and taste of skin, and decided it would be mere vanity to listen further, much less join. What she overheard did improve her mood, though...and brought a faint blush to her cheeks.
A low whistle from the front of the line arrested their attention. Kylan had raised the lantern high, looking at the cavern in front of them, where an ominous row of long stalactites hung directly above an equally impressive row of tall stalagmites, forming a kind of fence that resembled gigantic teeth. “Okay...that’s scary, but also really neat. Those are just rocks, right?” the little male asked.
Nayeli moved up next to him, looking along the row of formations. “Mostly,” she answered.
“‘Mostly?’” Diya asked, directly behind her, “Which parts aren’t?”
The priestess smiled reassuringly, pointing to a gap in the upper row of “teeth”. From that spot, her finger traced a straight line down, to where the remains lay on the floor. It looked less like rock and more like an eviscerated animal, with entrails splayed all around it. “I don’t know a proper name for those. Oro and I call them ‘ropers’, because of how their tongues look,” she indicated the long yellow tendon trailing off between the lower row, “It’s sticky, and sometimes they let it hang down in the hopes of something brushing against it. Mostly, though, they seem to wait for something living to walk within reach and then lash out, sort of like a subterranean frog. They aren’t very dangerous if you stay out of reach, or have help nearby.”
Tuli tilted her head, looking at the carcass and the remaining stalactites on the ceiling. “What happened to that one, then? Did it fall asleep? How do they hold on?”
“I’m not sure about the details of their biology,” Nayeli admitted, “But this one, I’m almost sure, got on Oro’s bad side. I would be surprised if the kobolds did not recognize it, so either one of them got close enough for it to attempt an ambush...or Oro got bored and spotted a chance to tear something apart. He does the same thing to predators on the surface, sometimes.” She turned her eyes one more time to the row of stone teeth above them. “I think Grik or Gaki would have waited to warn us if there were still any in reach of the path, so don’t be concerned. If something does happen, remain calm and wait patiently. I swear a nose full of bad breath will be the worst you suffer before you are rescued.”
That wasn’t much comfort, but they did pass between the rows unharrassed. “Ugh...caves are disgusting and scary,” Diya observed as they continued through the wide cavern beyond.
“Mostly,” Nayeli agreed, “At the very least, it is clear our kind do not belong down here. I have seen some formations, like those we just passed, that were strangely beautiful, or even welcoming. Neither Oro nor I have ever been disappointed at feeling the touch of daylight again, though.”
That didn’t surprise any of them, as each and every member of their party was more than ready to feel warm sun on their fur and see more than a couple dozen feet in any direction, some of those filled with shifting shadows. A large splotch of scarlet emerged from the endless night not long after that. Oro was waiting with the kobolds beside a bend in the tunnel. “Bad news,” he warned them as they approached, looking squarely at Sarahi as if the news was specifically for her, “We’re splitting up here.”
“What?” the various Ferruda asked almost in unison. Nayeli tilted her head, more trusting that there was a good reason for this decision, but dearly desiring to hear it.
“You four,” he pointed to the twins, Tuli, and Nayeli, “Are going that way, with the kobolds.” He pointed to what they had taken for a shadow on the wall, cast by the lamp across the uneven surface. Gaki ducked into it briefly, then back out, proving both that it was an easily-missed opening...and that it was a very small opening, in which even the kobolds had to stoop to walk. “You and I,” Oro wagged a finger between Sarahi and himself, “Are going this way. We’ll join back up with them in the treasury.”
“The...are we that close?” the skeptical Sha'khari asked, dubiously. They hadn’t passed by anything like a habitation yet...not that she would recognize kobold nests if she did see them.
“Dangerously,” the Rabbit assured her, “Lose the pack. It stays here, or they can drag it behind them.”
“Why two routes?” Nayeli demanded, “If this way is too small for her to navigate — and I can easily understand that — we can all take the wider route, even if it is longer.”
Oro scowled at her, apparently unhappy at having to explain himself...and probably because she was going to be unhappy with the answer. “Through that way,” he pointed to the hole again, “The kobolds take news and offerings to their dragon, and can observe and maintain the main approach. It is the safe path, and you will take it.” Pointing down the tunnel ahead of them, he continued, “Down this way is the assembly room and the main approach to the treasury, which intruders are expected to find. It is, needless to say, a trap. Several of them, in fact, and all designed to kill. It will be easier to keep one person safe than three, much less seven,” he snorted, “I was getting bored anyway. Crushing some defenses will be a nice change of pace.”
Nayeli considered him carefully for a long moment, keeping her face neutral, and also took in Sarahi’s uncomfortable look. “I will go with you,” she declared, “Two should not be much more difficult than one.”
“Fusk that,” he retorted immediately, “Even one of you is a fusking risk. It’s not a leisure-walk. If she’d fit down the maintenance tunnel, I’d go alone.”
He’d overplayed his hand. Her look told him as much. He’d just admitted he would have taken the dangerous route even if it was completely unnecessary. “What happened?” the priestess asked gently, “You’re frustrated. You’re looking for an outlet. And that after being unusually reserved these last two days. What’s bothering you?”
Oro’s jaw clenched audibly for a moment. It was a miracle, after the last week, that he still had molars at all. “Ask me when we get to the treasury,” he growled at last, subtly acknowledging her guess was not wrong, “Maybe I’ll feel like telling you then.” Turning on his heels, he snapped his fingers and started off down the hall.
When Sarahi did not immediately follow, he paused and clenched his fists, realizing he’d gotten used to the near fanatical obedience of the kobolds. “Princess,” he growled, “Let’s go.”
“I don’t have your eyes, or whatever it is you’ve got,” she reminded him, having already unhooked her saddlebag and begun fishing the spare lamp and a skin of oil out, “Give me a minute.” Once the light was lit and she’d given a brief, quiet goodbye to the other Ferruda, they watched her disappear down the tunnel behind him. Nayeli said a quiet prayer, not out of fear of seeing them again, but for the sake of the Sha'khari’s sanity in the meantime.
“Is this absolutely necessary?” Sarahi asked reluctantly once they were far enough away she could be sure of not worrying their other companions.
“No,” her husband answered more quickly than she liked. Before she could press for more of an explanation, though, he continued, “You could crawl on your belly through that tunnel, and I could crawl backward right in front of you so that I can pull you through any point that gets too narrow for you to wiggle your legs. It will be arduous, take hours, and sorely tempt me to bite your lower half off entirely and make you learn to walk on your hands as soon as we reach the other side. If you prefer that option, we’ll go back right now.”
Sarahi sighed. “I don’t know why I still bother asking.”
“You’ll learn, eventually,” Oro assured her, “It only took her a couple of months to start taking me at my word.”
That earned him an arched brow. Fortunately, Sarahi had already learned not to point out when he said something nice or reassuring. But to hear it still surprised her, every time...much like the view that suddenly opened up in front of them. The tunnel ended in a large, open cavern with an unnaturally smooth floor. To their right, several dozen feet above the floor, another and much larger tunnel opened out onto a wide ledge that overlooked the room like a royal balcony.
“Wow,” Sarahi breathed, “I never expected such a familiar sight down here. This is clearly an audience room, or perhaps their version of a throne room.”
“Probably,” the Rabbit beside her agreed, turning to follow the wall on their right, “But I’m not the sort to be impressed by a throne. I want to eat the man sitting on it. Or woman, though queens tend to be less satisfying. Less fight in them,” he grunted, and she couldn’t tell if that was a dig at her lost future or a subtle compliment to her aggression toward him. Further down the wall, he found the side-tunnel he was looking for. “From this point on,” Oro warned before they passed through the arch, “You stay close. You stay quiet. You stay observant. If you fail, we will both die.”
Sarahi nodded her understanding somberly. They were now on the dangerous path, the one prepared by the dragon and his minions to deliberately tempt thieves and intruders to their death. And while she liked to think she was not the soft, dependent princess of fairy-tales, there was no arguing he was the more experienced of the two of them. She kept close to his back as he started down the hall.
He stopped at the threshold of a wide, circular room, like a bubble had been blown in the rock and then the floor filled back in. The tunnel continued on the other side, but the walls were smooth and seamless. Oro looked it all over carefully, sticking just his head through the opening to examine the ceiling as well. “When it comes to traps,” he began to say softly, “Your life depends on paying attention. Look at that,” he pointed to a deep channel running around the entire rim of the floor, “What do you make of it?”
Stepping carefully up beside him, Sarahi noted the separation in the floor, and also looked around the rest of the room. She was a little surprised he was taking time to (apparently) teach her something, so thought it prudent to do her best to take the lesson. “...If I wasn’t expecting traps, I’d guess it was to hold oil for lighting. Maybe to seal the room in a wall of flame?”
“Sniff it,” the Rabbit instructed, without the expected venom or contempt, so she bent her head low and did so.
“Oh — it smells acidic,” the Sha'khari noted, waving the scent out of her nose after getting a little too good a whiff. Not that she knew what that meant, really, but fortunately he didn’t seem to expect her to.
“Yeah,” Oro just nodded, still considering the floor suspiciously, “That dragon was acidic. It oozed from every seam of its body. It’s no surprise it would get built into its defenses.” He placed one foot across the trench, resting it lightly on the floor briefly before pulling it back. “Alright, here’s what we’re going to do,” he declared then, “You will wait here. I am going to cross the room. After I am there, you are going to move to the center of the room. The center, understand?” he emphasized, “Not a step further. Better to pull up short than overstep, so take your time.”
Sarahi arched a brow at the strange emphasis, but nodded her understanding. Knowing him, he probably figured it was faster to show her than explain, so she would wait and see. He shooed her back from the threshold a bit, and she gave him room as he set himself to enter the room at a run.
The floor shifted almost as soon as his weight committed to it. It tilted under him, the far side of the room rising to the point that the door disappeared, but the Rabbit didn’t break stride in his sprint across and up the sloped floor. As he crossed the midpoint, the floor began to fall in the other direction, rising on the side where Sarahi stood, like a teeter-totter. She lost sight of him and had to dance back a few extra steps from the door as the rising stone brought up a splash of acid with it, hissing in the hall.
In another moment the floor fell, rocked back and forth a few times as it balanced out, and finally settled, allowing her to see Oro standing in the far threshold. “Remember,” the Rabbit yelled back to her as he braced one foot on the floor and his arms against the arch of stone above his head, “The center! No further!”
She took a deep breath as her stomach tightened up. Being forced to rely on him was unnerving, seeing as he had been the primary threat to her life for the last several days. She wanted to run, to sprint for the exit just as he had, but she was neither that quick nor that confident. Instead, she must be disciplined...and trust him.
Sarahi placed one paw onto the unstable floor. It shifted as her weight did, rocking up against the Rabbit’s foot. He braced himself between it and the ceiling, halting its tilt after just a couple of inches. “Take...your...time,” he growled, though he seemed strained to hold the weight. Sarahi went padding into the room quickly, but not in a panic, trying to keep her path straight to the center so that he did not have to adjust to the tilt much as it shifted under her weight. She slowed as she neared the center, shifting and setting her feet carefully to maintain the balance of the room...at least well enough that he did not have to work at keeping it level.
“Now,” Oro huffed as they found the balance, “I’m going to cross back over. As soon as I reach that door, you run for this one, even if you can’t see it. Do not stop, do not look back. I am not your concern, understand?”
She swallowed hard and nodded. He gave her a second to steel her nerves, then once more sprinted across the treacherous floor. It didn’t tilt as severely this time, as Sarahi shifted herself to counterbalance his weight somewhat, and he was able to reach the far side before it tilted far enough to seal off the exit she was aiming for. “NOW!” he yelled over his shoulder, pausing at the falling rim. Sarahi dug in her claws and started sprinting up the slope as fast as she could, and her greater weight offset his, causing the floor in front of her to start tilting back down at an alarming speed. She was afraid she wasn’t going to make it to the door without having to jump up to it.
The floor stopped suddenly, causing her to lose her stride and fall flat before she was quite out of the room. Behind her, she could hear Oro strain as he braced the floor just as he had before, insuring it was steady for the rest of her trip across. Sarahi relieved the weight as quickly as she could, and Oro stepped through the far threshold to wait for the balance to restore itself again.
One more hard sprint, and they were both finally safe in the far hall. “Well that was annoying,” the Rabbit grunted.
Looking back into the slowly settling room, Sarahi softly told him, “Thank you. Clearly, that would have been a lot easier for you to cross alone.”
“Story of my life,” he shrugged, continuing down the hall toward a bend in the tunnel ahead, “I’ve dragged the priestess through enough of these to be used to it by now.”
That remark made the Sha'khari think of something she had been looking for a chance to bring up, and realize there would be no better opportunity than now, when they were well absent of their other companions. “Speaking of Nayeli, I have to ask—”
“No, you don’t,” Oro interrupted curtly, as if he already knew her question, “Especially of me. You won’t like the answer, much less trust it, so don’t waste breath.”
Sarahi frowned hard at him, and continued anyway. “You talk a lot of spite, but you go out of your way pretty regularly to keep her safe, even when you don’t really have to. Tell me truly: do you love—?!” Her words and her breath caught in her throat as something sank under her paw with a soft click. Oro’s arms whipped in two quick circles in front of him to be sure to intercept any arrows that might pass by his smaller body to reach her. As with her spear, the wood and metal were swallowed whole as they attempted to enter his body, disappearing into Gorgorond’s maw.
“You should be paying attention,” the Rabbit growled in a low voice, “What you learn here could be the difference between life or death one day.” He pointed out the channels in the wall the arrows had come from as they rounded the bend at the end of the hall. After that, much to Sarahi’s surprise, he...tried...to answer her. “Hell if I know. I couldn’t recognize love even if I felt it. I stopped believing in the stuff a long time ago,” he snorted, “I just want her to last a little longer. And since I’m already damned, I will have what I want while I can take it, and dare the world to try and stop me.” He looked back over his shoulder at the Sha'khari trailing behind him, looking stunned by the sincerity of his answer. “That good enough for you?”
She nodded silently, and did not press him further...especially since he suddenly pulled up short and stepped back against her, looking at the floor ahead like it had threatened to bite him. “Fusk,” he hissed, looking up and behind them, to a second tunnel discretely joining theirs through the ceiling, “Are they kobolds or dwarves? That’s some pretty serious construction there. You go ahead, and tell me if you can feel it.”
Quirking a brow, Sarahi slid by him and began very carefully walking, one pace at a time, down the hall. She hadn’t gone more than three steps when she felt the shift, and even noticed the little scrapes that tilted into view along the sides of the wall. “Did the floor just tilt?” she asked.
“Yep,” the Rabbit answered, still staring up at that other tunnel behind them, as a gentle rumble began to grow in it, accompanied by a stir in the air.
“...Oh...gods,” Sarahi gasped, eyes widening as she realized what the growing sound was. With a roar of scraping stone, a roughly rounded boulder came rolling out of the higher tunnel, riding ramps carefully blended into the walls as it merged with theirs, and barreled directly toward the pair at a speed they (or at least Sarahi) could not hope to outrun.
Oro didn’t even try. Facing Sarahi, with his back to the oncoming boulder, he knelt on one knee and reached his hands behind him. The rock hit him full-tilt, and Oro groaned as it rode up his toes and his back to slam hard against the low ceiling above his head...and was forced to a halt. The Rabbit swore vehemently as he wrenched his scraped back and broken toes out from under the hazard that now thoroughly blocked the passage. “Errrg...remind me to kick the runts for that when we see them again,” he growled as he marched passed the speechless Sha'khari.
“Just...just how strong are you?” she asked, falling in step behind him.
“Strong enough,” the Rabbit shrugged.
Sarahi frowned at that answer. “Even demons have their limit,” she reasoned, “And yours cannot even hold its shape apart from your body.”
“Look,” Oro rolled his eyes, not even looking back, “You’ve gotta understand: the thing you see imitating my fur and skin isn’t the whole demon. It is both here and in Hell at the same time. Don’t ask me to explain it; I’m not a wizard. The Authority alone probably knows how big Gorgorond actually is. All I know is the size of its hunger, and that I’m parading around in some combination of its tongue, stomach-lining, and occasionally a tooth.” He made a brief face at her over his shoulder, displaying his own tongue and teeth in a mockery of the very idea of dignity. “Now, I hear some people can tie knots in fruit stems with their tongues. Can’t say I’ve ever tried it, but it at least sounds hard to pull off. Even people who can’t do that, though, have no trouble just eating the fusking fruit. Get it?”
She did...or at least thought she did. What surprised her most was that level of abstract reasoning coming from Oro. She was about to remark on it when they they were forced to stop at the edge of an enormous chasm. The crack in the earth didn’t run far to either side of them, but disappeared into an abyss below, and gaped nearly a hundred feet to the other side. A rope had been strung up tight between two stakes in the floor on either side to form a perilous crossing. Oro chuckled at the sight.
“Well that’s refreshingly simple,” the Rabbit smirked, “So, princess, what do you think the trap here is?”
Sarahi crooked one brow, and didn’t even look very hard. “The rope is a false hope,” she answered, “Why would anyone purposefully leave a path like this for thieves they wished to keep out?”
“Exactly,” Oro nodded, stomping on the stake in front of them to drive it firmly into the ground, “And this one was probably set decently, to make it look secure. The one on the other side will be the rig. Still...I’m a little disappointed in the lack of sophistication here, given what came before,” he admitted, setting one foot on the rope, “Wait here.”
Before she could make acknowledgment or protest, the Rabbit was off at a run across the braid, and Sarahi had to admit her respect for his physical prowess. It was hard to say whether the demon contributed to this part of him at all, or if the man had always been this finely aware and in control of his body. He was within yards of the other side when the rope began to sag, and he bounced off it like a trampoline to land on the opposite ledge before the stake could pull free.
With a contemptuous stomp, he drove that stake securely into the rock as well. “Alright! You can cross now!” he yelled back across the chasm.
Sarahi felt the blood drain from her face. “Are you crazy?!” she shouted back, gesturing to her hindquarters, “I can’t hold all this up with just two hands! And no, my paws cannot grip a rope!”
“Then walk it!” Oro scoffed back, leaning against the wall of the tunnel at the end of the ledge.
The Sha'khari clenched her fists, her tail lashing in agitation. “I grew up in a castle, not a circus!” She had always taken pride in her grace and balance, of course, and spent many a year perfecting the posture of her walk...but probably not enough to manage so narrow a path as this, and she would not like to test it with her life.
Oro rubbed his hand across his face, shaking his head...then startled her by hopping off the ledge. He caught the rope in one hand as he passed it, swinging his back to her and tucking his knees to cross his ankles above the braid. Suspended below the rope, he fixed a vexed, inverted stare on her as he pulled himself across using only his arms while his hips and legs were held up by his crossed ankles. “Hold on like this,” he instructed as he got close enough to not have to shout anymore, “Even your paws can manage that. Don’t go too fast or you’ll blister. Now come on. I’ll help you down,” he offered, extending one hand toward her, within reach of her front paws.
Sarahi looked at him like he’d grown a second head, then at the yawning abyss below him. “I...don’t think I can,” she admitted through gnashed teeth, hating the sense of helplessness and dependence on him, “I hate to be a bother...but could you—”
“I don’t drag along dead weight,” he reminded her of his warning the very first day they had met, as the group went running out of the capital city. “You can do this. You will do this. Or I will enjoy your entrails and just leave your hollowed husk here, to spare you starving to death,” he growled, daring her to consider that third option as genuine.
She wanted to spit in his face. But the sound of the familiar, aggressive Oro she’d come to know gave her some motivation. So, taking a deep breath, she stepped down onto his palm, which held every bit as stable as the rock she was stepping off of. “I know you hate me,” he told her suddenly, almost distracting her as she clamped the handle of the lantern in her teeth and worked out her grip on the rope, twisting her body to avoid dropping her weight more than necessary, “And I’m not gonna do a damned thing to try and change that. But if you do everything that is in your own power to do, I will catch you when you fall, whether you trust me or not. That’s what I expect from you, and that’s what I offer.” He scooted further down the rope to give her room to bring her back paws down, putting a hand under her back to help support her weight until she had her grip good and settled.
“Okeh,” Sarahi whispered around the lantern handle, half to him and half to herself, “He’e weh go.” She started dragging herself down the rope, having to work hard to pull the animal half resigned to sliding along behind her. Oro got out of her way...by hauling himself up over the rope and somehow getting his feet under him on top of it. From there he carefully stepped over her hands and front paws, and began walking along above her as she went, keeping directly over her lower belly.
He didn’t say anything else...not to goad her, not to encourage her, nothing. He just walked along above her, arms crossed and watching...and so saw the threat coming before she did. “Huh,” the Rabbit scoffed, “Guess it wasn’t as simple as I thought, though it’s sure as Hell slow to spring.”
Sarahi didn’t waste time asking what he was talking about. She just picked up her pace as much as she could, dragging herself passed the halfway mark. Something was coming up out of the abyss. She could feel it...feel the air rising above it, like the breeze the boulder had driven. But this was larger—much larger! She clung to the rope desperately when she heard the shriek, like a thousand great horns blowing below her. A giant worm, nearly as wide as the chasm itself, was rising up out of the dark, its head split into quarters lined with row after row of hooked teeth, preparing to take them in rope and all.
“Bastard beast!” the Rabbit growled as he stepped off the rope, falling right passed the shocked Sha'khari, “You’ve bitten off more than you can chew, now!” He shrieked back at the monster as his arms stretched, expanding their reach to be a match for the creature’s jaws. As the splits began to close , he wrenched his hips around, turning his torso and setting his stretched appendages spinning and slicing like blades through the worm’s flesh. Teeth that would have latched on to Sarahi and the rope fell short. Headless and partially spiral-cut, the worm fell back into the obscuring darkness...soon to be followed by Oro.
A spur of rock shot out from the cave wall, and the falling Rabbit snagged it with one distended arm, snarling in pain as he pulled himself up onto it. He snarled again when he looked up to check on Sarahi. The Sha'khari felt faint. Her grip weakened, and started to slide. The lantern fell from her mouth, falling into the void like a star from the sky. “Don’t let go, you fusking idiot!” Oro barked, coiling himself up to jump as high as he could. His elongated reach found the rope, clutching it with both hands above Sarahi’s belly. Drawing himself in like a fish on a reel, the Rabbit tucked his knees up under her leonine back, taking her weight on his lap with gnashed teeth. “The fusk are you doing?” he growled, snapping her out of her shocked stupor.
Sarahi seized the rope, firming up her grip with all six limbs. “I’m sorry,” she gasped, eyes still closed tight even as she began dragging herself hurriedly down the line.
“Fusking right,” Oro grunted, shuffling along beside her with his knees still tucked under her. He walked all the way to the end with her like that, occasionally (and frighteningly) complaining about the sudden need for a nap, before pulling himself onto the ledge and then hauling her bodily up onto the stone. Then they both flopped down against the tunnel wall to relax their lungs.
“...I won’t do it again,” Sarahi promised quietly in the dark, as if she wasn’t aware she was talking out loud.
“You damned well will if—” Oro started to counter, but she cut him off.
“I won’t hesitate,” the Sha'khari clarified, “I won’t complain...and I won’t distrust you.” He had kept his promise. With dislocated and distended arms, he had caught her and held fast, heedless of the pain. “I am so sorry...”
It took him a few breaths to answer, like he wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about. “Yeah...well...that can’t be helped,” he shrugged, getting to his feet, “Fusking vampire broke my sword, and you’re long. Now get up. Between my arms, my toes, and my back, I’ll actually be glad to see the priestess again for about a minute.”
True to her word, though she wasn’t quite rested, Sarahi immediately got to her feet, reaching out in the dark to find his shoulder, and followed behind him in thoughtful silence, trusting him to lead her through the impenetrable dark. They hadn’t gone very far, though, before the tunnel opened up into a new room lit by a narrow beam of warm light streaming in from a large gap in the ceiling. Reflected in sparkles under that ray, large piles of silver and gold coins dominated the center of the room. Armor, weapons, chests and crates of other goods lined the walls, and two other wide tunnels lead into and out of the room, both at considerable heights up the wall.
“Well,” huffed the Rabbit, “Looks like we made it. That was shorter than I expected.”
“Oh wow,” Sarahi whispered, looking at the mounds of coins. The pile here put even her father’s treasury to shame. She didn’t waste much time being impressed, though, and soon set about looking around the rest of the room. “But where are the others?” she asked when it became clear they were the only two living things in the room.
Oro had already sat himself down against a wall and crossed his arms over his chest, apparently intent on taking a nap while they waited. “Probably still crawling through that tunnel,” he answered like it should have been obvious, “Patsy’s probably having a hard time of it, and holding the priestess back. Not that she would let anyone fall more than a foot behind if she’d gone in first,” he scoffed.
As if on cue, Grik and Gaki popped into the room like magic, emerging from behind a shield leaning against the wall. The kobolds took a quick glance around and started chattering excitedly when they spied Sarahi and Oro. Kylan and Diya emerged a second later, with sighs of relief as they straightened their backs. “Sarahi!” the little female cheered as the Sha'khari padded over to them. The larger Ferruda was surprised when they both flung themselves into hugs around her waist, “That was terrifying!”
“Heh...yeah, I’ve about had it with these caves, myself,” the former princess nodded, returning their hugs, “What about Tuli and Nayeli?”
“They’re coming, just slowly,” Kylan assured her, “Tuli got...well...”
“Stuck,” Diya put it bluntly, making a rounded gesture over her own chest, “But she’s passed that now. They’re having to keep on their bellies, so it’s slow going. Are you—?”
She was interrupted as the shield behind them fell over with a loud bang. “Oops! Sorry about that,” Tuli groaned as she squirmed through the narrow opening. Once on the other side, she didn’t even bother to stand up, but just rolled over to give Nayeli room to come through and laid on her back, panting. “I hate caves!” the busty Ferruda declared loudly as soon as she had enough breath.
For Nayeli’s part, as soon as she was free of the confining space she pushed to her feet and gave Sarahi a quick hug in passing, then made straight for Oro. “Don’t get up,” she urged as she knelt down beside him, resting her hands lightly over his chest and already beginning to whisper a blessing.
“Hadn’t planned on it,” the Rabbit retorted tiredly, not even opening his eyes. “Good work with the blessing back there. Fusking princess nearly lost it...”
Nayeli smiled softly. “You noticed?”
Oro snorted. “Well I sure didn’t call for the wall to rearrange itself. How did you see us?”
“The kobold tunnel has a gap cut in the wall around that part, so they can view the pit. That was very brave, even for you,” she remarked, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, “Thank you for helping her.”
“Take the ache out of my back and arms so I can sleep, then we’ll call it even,” he grumbled. She should remember that he really didn’t have any choice but to save the Ferruda. She had made sure of that. All the same, Nayeli seemed confident he would have done something similar even if he wasn’t under such constraints.
“I think the kobolds were trying to disarm some of the other traps,” the priestess continued while her healing hands roamed over him, “But you made progress faster than they expected. We saw where the crossbows load and fire from, and they looked alarmed when they realized you’d already triggered that one. We couldn’t see what came next, but Grik was trying to push in some sort of wedge set in the wall. I think whatever it was supposed to stop had already sprung, though. It sounded heavy.”
“That was probably the bolder-roll, then,” Oro explained, rolling onto one side with his back to her. Nayeli gasped as the living demon-skin peeled back to reveal the damage underneath: flesh and tendon scraped and peeled all the way to the bones of his spine. Gorgorond could seal it off, keep it safe and clean, but there was only so much it could do to prevent the damage in the first place. “Fusking thing was heavy. My toes still hurt.”
“I’ll take care of all of it,” the priestess promised, her hands hovering above his stripped back, careful not to actually touch it, “You can sleep now.” Not only did she not have to tell him twice: he was already a step ahead of that instruction.
Nayeli took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly as she got to her feet a few minutes later, content that Oro would sleep comfortably and be right-as-rain when he woke up. With that task accomplished, she turned her attention to the treasure piled all around them, which the others had already begun to pick over curiously. “Alright, everyone,” she gathered their attention with a gentle clap of her hands, “I’m afraid we have some work to do. We need to sort through this pile and separate out anything that is not coin or gem. Fortunately, it looks like most of that work was done already, but we should make sure, just in case.”
“In case of what?” Sarahi quirked a brow in confusion, but not complaint.
“It’s unlikely,” the priestess explained, “But we need to make sure there is nothing here that would be dangerous for Oro to touch. Blessed items, vials of holy water, anything of that sort. They are rare, but it would not be unheard of to find such things in a horde such as this. It would also be best to separate the gold from the other coins,” she added, “I’m given to understand that gold is essentially magic materialized, and of particular interest to the Emperor’s wizards. In large quantities, such as we’re likely to find here, it produces...unpredictable effects.” She ran her fingers through the nearest pile of coins, coming up entirely with silver, though the bright yellow gleam of gold could be seen here and there along the surface of the pile. “Gems are desirable for similar reasons. We’ll keep a handful for our own needs: their value is high and accepted in any country, so Oro and I find them especially useful. We’ll avail ourselves of any practical equipment as well. My only caution,” she finished, “Is not to become attached to anything magical, if you find it. The Order and the emperor are certain to take an interest in such things, so we will not be allowed to keep them.”
“Um, aren’t we putting the cart before the horse, here?” Tuli asked, even as she began climbing up the side of one coin-pile, sending silver cascading like sand under her feet, “As in we’re going to need a cart and a horse, and probably several, to haul all this back to Corruscant? How are we even going to get half of this out of the cave?”
Nayeli smiled knowingly, but kept whatever secret she was hiding a surprise for now. “One problem at a time. Let’s sort and take inventory until Oro wakes up. Silver and copper on this side, gold on that side, gems and jewelry over here, and everything else against that wall.” Following her guidance, the group set about sorting and distributing the horde to various corners of the room. Sarahi, Tuli, and Nayeli concentrated on sifting through the coins, while the twins and kobolds began going through trunks and chests and vases to check their contents.
After a few minutes, the priestess began looking curiously at the floor, and then eying the large tunnels in the wall above, clearly used by the dragon. “What’s wrong?” Kylan asked in passing as he and Diya carried a trunk full of silks over to the pile of checked equipment.
“Not wrong,” the priestess assured him with a smile, “I’ve just become suspicious that there’s a second horde.”
“Another one?” Diya gasped, already a little overwhelmed by the sheer mass of wealth around them, “Why?”
“Well, this dragon spat acid at Oro when we encountered it, and seemed to be secreting the stuff from between its scales,” she explained, pointing to the piles of coins around them, “So it clearly did not sleep here, as dragons are rumored to do with their hordes, or all these coins would be one big lump melted together. If my guess is right, it would want a bed made primarily of gems. And since we have yet to find any of those in this room, I think the dragon might have kept them in a separate cave.”
“But...but a bed like that would be worth a king’s ransom all by itself...” Diya’s head was spinning at the thought.
“No,” Sarahi corrected, having overheard, “It would be worth the king’s kingdom. A small one, at least.”
“St. Culbert meant what he said about wrecking an economy,” Nayeli nodded, once more eying the tunnels overhead. She then knelt down to meet Kylan at eye-level. “Do you think you and Grik could go find it? I’m certain one of those tunnels leads to it. There are not that many paths down here that a dragon could take.”
Kylan’s chest puffed out proudly. “You bet!”
Nayeli smiled and touched a finger to his lips. “By the Authority, vested in me, I invoke the Treaty of Tongues, spoken in the first language, blessing of Erri-All-Seeing,” she intoned, “Now go explain to Grik what we’re after. And ask where the pantry is while you’re at it,” the priestess added with a smile, “We could do with a change of diet for at least one meal, if there’s anything left.”
“Leave it to me,” the little halfbreed promised, and went to collect the kobold and a lantern for their exploration.
They had just climbed up to one of the tunnels and disappeared into it when Oro began to stir. “Fusking princess needs a bath,” he grumbled as he came to, rubbing his head, “You all do.”
“I know, dear,” Nayeli nodded sympathetically, “We’ll find somewhere to do that once Kylan and Grik return. I sent them off to find the rest of the treasure.”
Oro peeked one eye open, taking an appraising look around the room at the treasure already here. “Fusking Matriarch, making me swallow all this crap,” he grumbled, “Probably hopes I’ll choke on half of it. Well I’ve got news for her: Gorgorond’s stomach is way bigger than this.”
“Swallow?” Diya tilted her head, “You’re going to swallow this? All of it?”
“Why else do you think they sent me to fetch it?” the Rabbit growled, pushing himself to his feet, “Normally, they’d need a small army to wheel all this garbage out, and we’re right on the border between Nazeen and Esles. It’d practically be a declaration of war to send that many men into neighboring lands. But,” he rolled his eyes as he approached the nearest pile of coins, and turned his back to it, “Fusking Matriarch probably figured out I could do something like this...” Stretching his arms out to either side, Oro flopped backwards into the pile. He fell through the heap of silver disks like it was water, briefly leaving an Oro-shaped hole in his wake, before the unsupported coins began to cave in on him. Each one that touched his skin disappeared into it, until he’d formed a sloped divot in the pile.
“Wow,” Tuli clapped, looking genuinely impressed, “That’s amazing! Why do we even bother with backpacks, then, if you can just—?”
He grabbed a handful of coins and tossed them at her, interrupting the question like the answer insulted him. “How about you swallow that handful. Then, when we get back to town and the innkeeper asks how we’re going to pay for our rooms, you can cough ‘em back up, right into his hand,” the Rabbit sneered, “Tell me then why you bother with a coin-purse.”
The busty Ferruda winced, then smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, that makes sense. I’m sorry.” She then surprised him (all of them, really) by picking up three silver coins and actually swallowing them. “Atonement,” she answered to their looks, by way of explanation.
Oro just rolled his eyes. “Idiot.” He was about to stand up when Sarahi shoved herself against the pile of coins beside him, burying him in silver and copper disks, at least until his body could finish absorbing them all. Tuli and Nayeli both giggled at the sight of his surprise just before the wave of coins washed over him.
Taking Tuli’s hand, Sarahi led her around to the other side of the pile, where the pair resumed sorting coins while talking between themselves. Nayeli got back to similar work beside Oro, occasionally pausing to help Diya lift armor or chests that were just a little too large for the little female to handle alone, and Oro began impatiently absorbing the meager piles they’d already sorted before laying into the main pile himself.
“You should wait, dear,” Nayeli admonished as he waded in beside her, “We’re checking for anything with a blessing on it.”
“It’ll be fine,” the Rabbit rolled his eyes, “Who would bother to bless a coin? And even if something else is mixed in here, it’d have to be on par with a Saint’s personal treasure to do more than annoy me.”
She refrained from pointing out that annoying him was of greater concern to them than himself...but held her tongue for fear of proving the point in speaking it. Instead she just walked beside him, channeling more coins into his body as the pile slid down to fill in the gaps he created by walking into it. It was efficient, at least, and Nayeli called for Tuli and Sarahi to make better use of their time helping Diya, since Oro clearly wasn’t going to give them the time to go through the coins properly.
A sharp whistle drew their attention to the tunnel Kylan and Grik had climbed. The pair were standing there once more, Kylan waving the lamp so they could be seen. “Stand back!” the halfbreed warned, then he and Grik rolled a large sack over the side, letting it fall to the floor some thirty feet below. It burst open in a twinkle of starlight, scattering sapphires and rubies everywhere. “Sorry!” Kylan cringed. The bag would have been way too heavy for either of them to climb down with safely, but he hated making a mess. “There’s...um...something like thirty more of those. We’ll need more bags, and it’s going to take us a while to fill them all up. We can’t get all of them, either: there’s a big puddle of acid in there covering most of them.”
“Good work, Kylan!” Nayeli shouted back, “Don’t worry about the rest right now. Since we know where it is, we’ll all come help after we finish here.”
Nodding his understanding, Kylan and Grik began carefully climbing back down to the group, with Sarahi standing below them to catch if either of them fell. “FUSK!!” Oro shouted suddenly, dangerously distracting them all for a second just at the pair were about halfway down. The Rabbit was shaking his hand like something had bitten it...hard. “The fusk is that?” he growled as the pain subsided, narrowly eying the bright red gem that had offended him.
Nayeli reached cautiously into the coins. The gem was attached to a silver hilt, and the hilt belonged to a sword in an ivory scabbard. Freeing it from the pile, the priestess freed an inch or so of the blade to inspect it. Light flared, illuminating the entire room, and a low hum rang out for an instant before Nayeli slammed the blade home again. Her eyes were wide with surprise and her breath had caught in her chest. “What, in Heaven’s name, are you doing here?” she whispered to the sheathed weapon, glancing anxiously at Oro, then to Tuli and Sarahi.
The Rabbit did not like her look at all just then. “What is it?” he demanded, but the priestess ignored him for the moment, approaching Sarahi as she lifted Kylan and Grik off the wall and set them on the floor.
The Sha'khari turned to face her as she approached...and was surprised when the priestess knelt on one knee and offered her the sword in a formal, almost ceremonial fashion. “Sarahi,” Nayeli said softly and somberly, “I am entrusting this to you, as the one among us most akin to a warrior. Keep it safe. Use it well. Above all, do not deliver it to any hand except the Matriarch’s (may she live again). And do not let it touch Oro.”
Sarahi arched a brow, hesitantly reaching out to accept the ornate scabbard. “What are you giving me?”
“My trust,” the priestess answered seriously, getting to her feet, “That you will not misuse it. If I am not embarrassingly mistaken, this is a Heavenly Sun-Blade, one of seven made in the last days of the Time of Chaos by the Matriarch (may she live again) in her first incarnation.” She met Sarahi’s eyes fiercely. “I do not know how it came to be here...it ought to be in a paladin’s keeping...but I am now certain that this is the real reason we were sent here. It is a holy relic, forged in another age, specifically to destroy demons, abominations, and anything else not sanctioned by the Order in Heaven or the Order on Earth. It will cut magic. It will cut chaos, conceptually. If Oro is struck with this, he will die.”
The Sha'khari suddenly understood, gravely, why Nayeli was so anxious, and what she had meant by giving her trust with the blade. “Why would you give this to me?” she asked, also understanding that Nayeli knew full well that, out of all of them, Sarahi was the most aggressive toward Oro.
“Because I have hardly set foot on the path of the sword, and am not inclined to follow it further,” the priestess admitted, “And it will not stand for that. Be respectful. It is all too likely that blade is self-aware and willful. Please try to keep it sheathed.” Having finally said her piece, as best she was able, Nayeli turned back toward Oro and the treasure pile, adding loud enough for all of them to clearly hear, “We will now keep anything else we desire from this place. It’s value will be trivial compared to that, once we deliver it to the Matriarch (may she live again). I would not be surprised if she does not even bother to ask what became of the rest of the horde.”
Sarahi carefully belted the ivory scabbard around her waist...and noted well the hard stare Oro was giving her as she did so. Well...not her so much as the thing on her hip, like he was judging how much of a threat it really posed to him, and did not like the conclusion he came to at all...