Vale waited until Virmir's breathing steadied before she began rummaging around in her pack. After his breaths became deep and even she assumed he reached his meditative state. Or he was asleep. Whatever it was, she felt terribly guilty. She'd pushed him so hard, and he was too shy to complain.
Didn't mages get their magic from the gods? She whispered a silent prayer to Akkala that his energy would be restored. Perhaps she should ask Dokorath for strength as well? It had been too long since she'd attended services. She cursed herself again for always screwing up. Then she reminded herself that Virmir knew what he was doing, and would handle it himself.
She pulled a bit of wrapped jerky from her pack— trail rations meant for a single quick meal. She wondered how long she could draw it out. Rufus and Vincent's fate were entirely in his hands. Her fate too... She could do nothing against those monsters, and she hated it. She hated being so helpless. She curled her lush tail around her ankles as she pinched the bridge of her snout. Everything she had tried to do on her own ended in disaster. It was if the gods themselves were punishing her for trying to escape her fate. For trying to be something different. Maybe her parents were right... Oh, gods...
She tried to wipe the tears from her eyes, feeling the moisture soak into the fur on the back of her hand. She turned to make sure Virmir was still asleep. It would have been horrible for him to see her like this. She needed to be strong for her squad. Dignity was the only thing she had left... That and her name. Her name was from her parents, but she needed it. Without her name she was just another clod of dirt.
Kendo Virmir... he was a mystery himself. The odd lighting cast his silver fur in a blue sheen as he slept. She had never heard of anyone afflicted with two of the three curses before. But she had heard tales of the Duke sentencing delinquent keepers to patrol duty. Once again she wondered what he had done.
She unwrapped her tail from her legs and let it softly tap the ground. It was so quiet. She pulled her ears forward and back, trying to pick up something, anything. But all she could hear was the ringing in her ears and the soft rasps of the fox's breaths. Somehow sitting next to him, she felt safe. She hadn't felt that way in a long time. It was like when her father cradled her in his arms, long before she had fur and a tail. Daddy the big strong general. She clutched the hilt of her sword. Long before things went to hell.
She glanced at the mage once more. He certainly was strong for being so small. Wait... was he... shrinking? Vale sat up straight and leaned over him, watching with wide eyes as Virmir's body grew smaller. What was going on? His folded arms straightened out and his furry hands melted into paws. He rolled over on his side, completely tangled in his ill-fitting clothing and looking very much like a simple juvenile fox.
Well that was strange. She supposed it was possible to shift in one's sleep, though she'd never done it before. The only other time she'd seen him fully an animal was that day he didn't show up at the bar. She'd never been able to get him to go. She wondered if he had problems shifting, or if it was perhaps involuntary for him. That would be bad... She watched his chest expand and contract. He seemed to be in a deeper sleep than before. Maybe this was just part of his magical rejuvenation process.
"He he he he he..."
Every muscle in her body tensed. She slowly turned her eyes to the right and spotted it about ten feet away, silhouetted in the dull blue from the cracks on the wall. It stood on a rock, bent over on all fours as if ready to pounce. Oh, gods...
"Virmir..." she whispered through clenched teeth. "Virmir!"
She couldn't stir him, as the fox's head was just out of reach. She was paralyzed— too scared to move, lest she provoke the thing to attack. Its tail swayed back and forth and though the lighting prevented her from seeing it, she knew it was smiling.
Then it leapt at her, clearing the entire distance with ease. Vale fell back on the rock and delivered a sound kick to the monster's chest with her bare footpaw, causing her to yelp an animalistic cry of pain. Oh! The same foot she twisted when she jumped though the portal. The pain had mostly gone away and she had forgotten about it , but now it was back with a vengeance. The impish creature tumbled to the rocky floor before jumping to two feet and snarling. Vale sprung from her prone position and balanced on her left foot, producing her mirror-like blade in the same fluid motion. It seemed to glow blue in the cerulean lights. With a mighty cleave she brought it down on the thing's head.
I stretched and yawned. It was a pleasant nap.
Then something hard fell on me...
I rolled down the pile of rocks, caught in the tangled mess of my clothing. Blast it! As I peeked my head out from under my cloak, I suddenly realized I had four paws. Again.
Oh, confound it all! Ever since I tried to reverse the spell and ended up changing myself completely into a fox instead, I found myself shifting back to that state in my sleep. Probably should get into the habit of remembering that... But it didn't make any sense! I constructed the spell so that it would fail after a set time! A one time casting! And then there was the matter that it did the exact opposite of what I intended!
Never mind the embarrassment. The clay creature that tumbled down the pile of boulders with me leered down with a menacing grin upon its draconic muzzle. I darted, leaving my clothing behind as its jagged blade struck stone. The thing was hot on my tail, and I leapt from rock to rock to avoid its blows. As a eight-pound fox I was much faster, and soon I was looking down at the thing from a higher perch as it struggled to catch up.
Vale slid down the rock pile and very nearly cleaved its head in half if it weren't for the falling pebbles alerting the little monster. It turned and tried to dodge, her silver blade planting itself into the creature's shoulder. It shrieked once, and the two began a tug-of-war.
Seeing my opening, I bore my fangs and growled. I don't appreciate being woken up.
I leapt off the boulder and bit the monster in its shin. It tasted like a mouthful of dirt. The thing squealed, but before it could bury its blade into my neck, I poured an ungainly amount of crimson energy into its body. It burst into flame like an oil-soaked rag. The cavern lit up in the fury of the fire. I bit harder, scorching it more and more until it withered and died, crumbling to lumps of blackened soot.
I released what was left and sat on my haunches, trying to spit out the vile ash. Disgusting! Vale stared at me with her mouth hanging open. What?
"Are you okay? Can you change back?" she asked as she bent down, balancing her weight on her blade. She seemed much larger now. Of course I could. I found I quickly had to master the art of shifting back before patrols each morning. I trotted back to my discarded garments and sat, waiting for her to get the message. "Oh," she finally said, turning around. Clothing. Every shapeshifter's bane.
Shifting back felt like stretching in bed after a long night's rest. My body grew back to its vaguely human-like shape, and my mass multiplied. Of course I would never be able to grow as large as I was when I was a man... It was only over a month ago, yet my true form seemed like such a foggy memory. After some ten seconds I once again had hands and proceeded to don my pants, struggling to slip my tail through that blasted hole. Once I was decent, I cast a bright witchlight above my head, replacing the dark blue tones of the self-luminescent cavern room with a vibrant orange.
"How long was I out?" I asked as I tried to figure out which end of my tunic was up.
"A couple hours at least," she replied, turning back towards me. I paused, shooting her a narrow glance and she hastily explained. "You were... a little difficult to rouse, and I thought you needed the rest."
I didn't say anything. I actually felt good. The pain was gone, and my energy seemed restored. I felt almost as rejuvenated as I did from a full night's sleep, so I wondered exactly how long a 'couple of hours' meant. She twiddled her thumbs as she watched me struggle with the tunic.
"Do you need help with—"
"No." I do not need help getting dressed! Like some child. Blast it. I threw the thing over my head.
"I think it's inside out..."
"Blasting..." I muttered under my breath, taking it off again. "Did you see any more of those... creatures?" With the tunic on correctly, I struggled to stuff errant strands of fur escaping from the neck back under the fabric.
"Yes, actually..." She pointed her blade to where she was formerly sitting on the pile of stones. My ears twitched up as I recognized two of the creatures lying dead amongst the rocks. She answered my question before I could ask it. "Their heads." She held her blade up. "Decapitating them doesn't work. The body will still move. But if you split the head down the middle, they die."
Interesting. I threw my cloak over my shoulders, climbing halfway up the rocks to the closest body. It was the first corpse I had the chance to examine that I didn't incinerate.
"They came down the tunnel, every half hour to an hour or so," she explained as she climbed up after me. "I can handle them so long as they come one at a time."
She certainly could if I slept through all that. The creature's gargoyle-esque head was split, though there was no trace of blood or any similar substance. It simply looked like a shattered statue with leafy vines crawling on it. I took its limp forearm in my claw and watched as it crumbled away, noting the root-like tubes that ran through the middle of its arm.
"They're plants," I realized. Vale leaned in closer. "Animated plants... Look." I began pulling the roots out of its dirt-like flesh, following a cord all the way to the leafy vine-like protrusions that stuck out of its chest. "Their roots solidify the dirt, shaping it into this body. Then they pull it up out of the ground along with them." That explained why fire was so damaging. I imagined extreme cold would also be fatal.
Vale must have killed a core root or something when she split the head down the middle. I pulled the two halves of its head apart as they crumbled to dust in my claws. The roots were far more concentrated in the head. Sure enough, each half bore a large seed-like object from which a main root emanated. It was like a peach pit, sliced in two. I snapped the root off the nearest half and removed it, holding it up for Vale to see.
"And there's our culprit."
I nodded. The anchor point for the spell that animated them. "They're grown from the ground." How long that took was anyone's guess. "Kill this and they die... You didn't let any escape, did you?"
She shook her head as she took her seat back on her rock. "No. As I said, they came one at a time every hour or so." That meant we had some time before the next, at least. "The first one caught me by surprise, but the second two I got the jump on... Do you still have your rations?"
"Good. I didn't know if we needed to split mine. We should eat, then get moving."
I wanted to continue on, as we'd already lost a fair amount of time, but my stomach said the dhole was speaking sense. I climbed back up to my wedge between the rocks to retrieve my pack, which hadn't fallen down with me, when I noticed a vein of blue running through the rocks where I slept. I tapped a claw against the pale crystal, felling a warmth within. Were these some sort of magic flows through the earth? I had heard Metamor was at a nexus of such underground streams of magic. Could this be why I recovered my strength so quickly?
I took a seat next to Vale and rummaged through my pack as my eyes pondered the blue veins in the rocks.
"Virmir, can I ask you something?"
Blast it. Rare is the traveling companion who will leave you alone to think.
"Yes?" I pulled out bit of wrapped jerky.
"When you cast that spell..."
"Which spell?" I'd cast at least a dozen that day alone, blast it.
"The explosion." She seemed a little nervous. I looked her in the eye. "The big one."
Ah, that one.
"When you touched the back of my neck—"
"That was my aura flowing through your body. Had I not done that, you would have burned with the rest of them. I apologize."
"Oh, no. It actually felt..." She rubbed her hands together. "... warm... and well, it was a wonderful feeling. I was just curious."
Well, obviously. It feels great to the recipient. That's how vampires and magic leeches get off. "You've no experience with magic at all, am I correct?" I bit into the jerky. Dried, salty meat. Disgusting.
It never ceased to amaze me how few bother to learn magic. It was like not bothering to learn to read or write. Like ignorant common farmers, so single minded in tilling their fields their entire life.
"Hold out your hand."
She did so. I dropped my jerky into my pack and held her wrist with my right hand. Her fur felt a bit courser than mine. I extended my pointer finger of my left hand and a wisp of flame burst to life upon my black nail, no bigger than that of a candle. I could feel her tense.
"Relax." I moved the flame over her open palm dropped it, where it burned a mere half inch over her pad. She smiled in wonderment, intoxicated by the light of the dancing plume.
"Right now this is my spell, linked to my aura which I'm channeling through your hand. Once I let go, it will become yours. It is real fire, but it will be a part of you. It will never hurt you so long as it burns from your aura. Are you ready?"
She nodded 'yes'. I released her hand, and she flinched slightly, probably noticing the draw from her spirit. "If you feel tired or dizzy, close your palm and it will go out." She brought her palm closer to her face, smiling widely as the flicker danced in her eyes. "Go ahead. Touch it." She looked at me. By this time I drew a half smirk. She tentatively poked the flame with her nail, then started running her fingers through it, amazed as the fire licked them.
"It feels... so warm, but it doesn't hurt at all."
I removed the jerky from my pack as she continued playing with the fire.
There. THAT should shut her up for a while. I turned away and resumed my ponderings on the blue cracks in the walls.
The exit tunnel provided no new scenery, and we soon found ourselves navigating dark twisting passages once more. Vale said that the little monsters only came from the way we did, which would explain why we didn't run into any until we stopped. Still, I wasn't going to take any chances, and kept a charge of energy at the tips of my claws ready to eradicate any shadow that peered from around the corner. We hid the bodies of the slain creatures behind the large piles of rocks in the larger room before we left. Hopefully they did not have easy methods of detecting their dead...
Vale kept a hand on the sword strapped to her hip at all times as well. It was a beautiful weapon, even sheathed. When her claw was not covering it, I could make out the tiny red-jeweled eyes of a bird of prey shaped into the silver metal at the base. Typical noble fluff. I was sure it cost a fortune.
"What is your sword made of?" I asked, breaking the silence in the tunnels. Her ears shot up at my unexpected voice, and she turned an eye down at me.
"Steel, with a two or three percent mithril alloy."
Mithril. I would have whistled had I still been able to. Even in such diluted amounts it was ungodly expensive. Of course, I was certain the noble had it all. It at least meant the blade was conductive to magic, and that I could enchant it easily when things got rough. I had been able to get it to burn for some sixty seconds, which was far longer than any rusty sword could handle.
"Where did you get it from?" I watched her expression change as I asked the question, her ears folding back on her head. It was such a strange thing to read the emotions of another sentient creature by watching her ears. She clearly did not like the topic. I hoped I wasn't that easy to read...
"My father..." she breathed out. "He was a general."
I nodded and faced forward once more. Of course. Some rich baron or lord or whatnot handing out trinkets to his children. I would have asked where but the answer likely would have been meaningless, as I wasn't all that familiar with the political geography of the Midlands. Or Galendor for that matter. And she apparently wasn't comfortable with it. Heaven forbid it is my questions that irritate others.
Twenty minutes later we received our scenery change.
I cut the witchlight when I noticed the blue glow ahead. The radiance from the cracks in the walls had grown so bright the additional light was not necessary. I could not see the details from as deep in the tunnel as we were, but the room beyond was certainly much larger than the opening we had rested in, and far better illuminated. Vale and I took up our positions on either side of the tunnel wall, slowly creeping towards the mouth. I didn't like this one bit, but we were far beyond the point of no return.
Unlike the previous "room", which was likely little more than a natural widening of the tunnel, the rocky corridor ended abruptly where the yawning blue chamber began. I surmised it had been cut into the stone. The two of us cautiously stuck our heads out as we crept closer to the tunnel mouth, and my jaw dropped at what I saw.
Spires. Like a castle, stone spires radiated upwards through the center of the arena-sized cavern. Each brick of the winding towers shimmered a pale blue. The bottoms remained hidden by a mass of stalagmites obstructing my view just beyond the opening, and the tops by stalactites just over my head. I craned my neck and nearly took another step forward to gain a better view, but I noticed Vale waving her arm out of the corner of my eye. I turned to the left to see her clench her teeth and run her nail across her neck in a throat-slitting gesture. Huh? She pointed, and I turned to see one of the plant monsters standing guard mere feet where I was about to step out... Blast it!
Its back was turned to the wall and therefore mostly to us, although it certainly would have noticed had either one of us stepped into the open. If it was alive, that was. It seemed more a statue than a living creature, and it just stood there lifelessly as I watched it. We both slunk back into the tunnel as I mouthed curses.
And herein a new problem arose. Every time I killed these things with fire, they screamed like molested banshees. If we were to maintain any semblance of stealth, we'd have to find another way...
I pointed to Vale's sword, and she responded with a "Who? Me?" look. Yes, you. We traded spots, and she took up the position where I nearly stepped out, pressing her back to the wall and raising her blade. I walked to the center of the tunnel mouth, levitating a small stone to my open claw and fingering it for a moment. If she missed, I would be able to defend myself easily against this one. But if that provoked a hundred of the monsters, well then that was it. Ugh. What a miserable way to go...
I tossed the stone before me and watched it click atop the other rocks. I immediately heard the creature's claws tapping on rock and soon it rounded the corner. It took a second to see me, but when it did its glassy eyes lit up in delight as it smiled a toothy grin and stepped forward.
At this point I was becoming thankful we were up against monsters that did not bleed. With a mighty cleave from behind, Vale spit its head in two, top to bottom, and it fell over like a defaced statue. I suppose it was a good thing she had practice. We waited several more agonizing seconds for more to come. None did.
I tiptoed out of the tunnel mouth, my ears and tail standing on end, my eyes darting every which way. The tunnel opened to the cavern beyond about one third of the way up, and a sort of natural ramp followed the wall to my left all the way down at a shallow decline. Pressing my claws against a pile of stone just before a sharp drop-off, I caught my first good glimpse of the spires in the center of the cavern.
Compared to any castle, like say the towers of Metamor, they wouldn't have been remarkable. Maybe ten or fifteen stories high. But the fact that they were underground and glowing blue made them rather awe inspiring. The central one was the largest, its cylindrical base certainly wide enough to host a king's banquet. The other two, which flanked either side, seemed more like narrow support columns keeping the cavern from collapsing. The tops and bottoms of each disappeared into the rocky floor and uneven ceiling, so I supposed my initial guess at their true size was inaccurate. More luminescent veins of blue streaked the cavern walls all around, becoming more concentrated at the tops and bottoms of the stone structures. Looking down near the bases of the towers I could see several figures walking around.
By then Vale had joined my side and stood gawking as well. We briefly looked at each other before realizing how plainly in sight we were and ducked down next to the rock.
How in blazes were we supposed to get in there?! Blast it all! Just to save a pair of idiots! I could not believe I followed her!
"How are we supposed to get in there...?" Vale mused, rubbing the tip of her chin with a claw. My ears flattened and I rolled my eyes, fighting the urge to growl.
I peeked over the edge again. At least a dozen shapes darted back and forth below us. Many I recognized as the plant creatures, their stony forms walking around with leaves clinging to them like ivy. But there were other figures as well. Black cloaked humanoid shapes with cowls drawn over their heads. I could not tell what species they were, nor what most of them were doing. Many were concentrated at the far cavern wall to the right of the towers, seemingly picking apart the stones and dividing them into carts. Perhaps they were mining the glowing crystal? The cart contents certainly did not glow.
"Virmir," Vale whispered. My ears turned toward her as she pointed. "You see those guys in black?" I nodded and she turned her head to me. "Put your cowl up."
Why? She just stared at me, so I did so just to humor her. I hadn't worn my cowl since I changed, and my ears felt like they would stab through the fabric. I had to flatten them to get it completely over my head. My black cloak and cowl... She leaned back and brought her hand to her chin in contemplation.
Oh. Heck. No.
I shook my head violently. "It won't work."
"At least hear me out!"
"They will see through it immediately! Look, it doesn't even cover my tail!" I swished it around indignantly for emphasis.
"Wrap it around your waist! Do you have a better idea?"
"And what about you? How do you plan on getting in?"
"Listen. I'm your prisoner. You lead me inside."
My mouth hung open for a moment. "You're suggesting we walk in the front door?!"
She clasped her paws before her chest. "Virmir, please..."
Blast it! I should have left the insane inbred noblewoman right there and stormed back the way we came. But those eyes. Oh, those eyes... They were twin emeralds boring into my soul, full of desperation, tears welling in the corners... Blast it again! There had to be another way! I clenched my teeth and thought. Think, blast it!
Oh, gods. I had already signed my own death warrant by jumping into that blasted portal in the first place. Why bother resisting now? I sighed. There were just so many more things I wanted to accomplish in life...
I tucked my tail under my cloak and pulled the hood down farther. "Let's go."
She smiled and her eyes lit up. "Thank you, Kendo."
She sheathed her blade and detached her belt. "You should take my weapons."
"I... cannot carry that." The blasted thing was as big as me!
"It won't look very convincing if I'm still armed..."
At this point I began muttering curses under my breath. The was no way I could wear the ungainly thing at my waist, so Vale strapped it over my shoulder like a bandoleer. The blade across my back still nearly touched the ground. Then she proceeded to pile on her bow and quiver half full of arrows. Oh, gods! My knees buckled under the crushing weight. I was forced to support myself by attempting to levitate the ridiculously heavy equipment, but that only served to take off a few measly pounds.
She stood and turned around, placing her hands behind her back as if they were bound. I drew my own blade and yanked on her lush black tail. She yelped in surprise.
"We must make this convincing..." I sneered. She nodded and I stuck the tip of my short sword into the leather armor upon her back, just above her hands. Holding her tail like a chain, we began making our way down the decline...
My heart beat faster and faster as we descended. Were they looking? Would they notice? I did not dare turn my head to get a better glace, fearing that would expose my already protruding muzzle even more. I fought back the urge to pant from my exertion, carrying all the equipment. Bunched around my waist, my tail began to cramp... Of course they would notice. We were so dead...
Floor level. Vale turned and began walking towards the door of the largest tower. It was... working? The black robed creatures didn't even bother more than a second glance. Several walked in front of us. More of the plant creatures. Even working like slaves they giggled their screeches...
I jumped as I heard a raspy voice screaming. I chanced a look from under my cowl. One of the black robes on the far side of the cavern began yelling indignantly, spewing obscenities at the plant-and-dirt creatures near the mining carts. His back was turned to us. He rose an oak staff and struck one of the little monsters across the face, the others bursting out in mad laughter at the reproach. As he performed the strike I glimpsed a scaly green tail snake out from under his robes...
A few more black robes moved away from the door and began walking towards the spectacle. Oh, gods! So close... The rectangular entryway was tall, narrow, and bland, except that it glowed blue much like the rest of the exterior. Darkness filled much of the rigid hallway beyond, though it was not completely without the blue light.
My knees shaking, we stepped onto the smooth stone floor. I could feel a warmth beneath my toes as they clicked on the hard surface. Click click click. We were in...
Vale boldly continued forward. What now? The enclosing walls were a dark brick, nearly black, and the blueness seemed to creep up from the cracks where the blocks met the floor on either side, fading a few inches up. Blast it! Straight. There were no other paths.
My heart sank. That same high pitched raspy voice that was yelling at the plant creatures... I gave Vale a push and we hurried on.
"You there! Stop!"
The clicking of toe claws on stone. The hollow thud of a staff on the floor. Wonderful. He was coming up behind us fast. I slowed my pace and turned my head slightly, acknowledging I had heard him. This was it...
"Identify yourself! Where did you find this prisoner?"
The black robed creature was by my side in a heartbeat. He was actually shorter than me. A green-brown scaled claw burst from the cloth and grabbed my shoulder, spinning me towards him. 'Speak!" he hissed. A reptilian muzzle erupted from under the cowl, filled with fangs. I did not get a good look at his face, but he seemed to flinch at mine. "My Lord?" he muttered as he took a step back.
He recovered instantly, shaking it off and pointing his staff at my face. "Who are you?" he demanded with more acid.
I smacked the staff out of the way with my blade and thrust my claw into his chest. I let loose a furious ball of flame and he flew backwards, soaring three feet and slamming into the wall. He remained planted there for an instant before crumbling forward and landing face first with a thud. Vale and I clenched our teeth. Ouch.
I looked up at Vale. "Run."
We bolted. After three steps I collapsed under the weight of the dhole's equipment. Blast it! She scooped her gear off my back and we high-tailed it down the hallway.
Empty hallways splayed in all directions. Blast it, what sort of mad tower was this? I followed Lady Vale as quickly as I was able, which admittedly wasn't very quick with my short legs. My calves ached and the pads of my feet became sore from slapping against the stone floor. She at least had the decency not to run at full speed. We rounded corner after corner, going this way and that, one perfectly square corridor after another. Ever since cursed to the miserable life of a scout, I had done nothing but follow that blasted waving tail of hers.
She slowed and pointed her nose downward. I had thought we were fleeing randomly, but I suddenly realized she was tracking the whole way. I will admit I was impressed.
I knew I hadn't killed the lizard man I hit with the fireball. It would only be moments before he roused, and then there'd be a legion of screaming plant-things down our throats. And possibly the black robes. I didn't even have a clue what they were. Blast it, I hoped they could not track like us...
Vale stopped and scowled, stooping low to take in more of some odor. "What is it?" I whispered, out of breath.
Blood? Oh, blast it...
She crouched on her haunches, letting her long black tail rest on the floor around her ankles. "It... it might be..."
Echoing somewhere down the hallway, a pig squealed.
My ears stood on end. Things began to click. A cult of mages. Animal sacrifices.
Rufus was a boar morph...
Vale took a few steps toward the cry after it died, her mouth gaping, her wide eyes stricken with terror... Then we froze and held our breath, our ears angled forward to pick up some sound— any sound.
I heard the blood rushing through my ears, my heart pounding with each pulse. Vale's leather armor creaked as she shivered. Still nothing... By the gods... could they really be sacrificing Keepers? People that were animals? Animals that were people?
That's why they didn't need Claudia...
We both caught the noise coming from beyond the stone, like a mouse trapped in the wall, only more metallic. Vale began moving towards a simple wooden door and I followed without thinking. My only thought was what I was going to do when we ran into these sick ceremonial daedra/demon worshipers or whatever they were. I nearly lost it. I had to fight to keep the energy swelling in my fists from bursting into flame. I was going to kill them, that was for sure.
No, just breathe... I shut my eyes and tried to calm down. If I began throwing spells left and right, our cover would be blown instantly. I'd put Vale in jeopardy. There was no way I was going to do something more stupid than her.
Vale slowly opened the creaking door. A single oil lamp hanging from the ceiling bathed the room beyond in a dim glow. A table and chairs stood in one corner of the cold stone chamber and several metal cages lined the walls, each resting on their own table. All were empty except the largest, which was barely big enough to contain the grayish-brown beast within. The ferocious hyena stopped clawing at the bars of his cage and looked up at us.
"Vincent?" Vale whispered to the animal from across the room.
The hyena's black ears folded and he shook his head up and down vigorously. I never thought I'd actually be relieved to see him alive. Vale ran over to the cage and shook the door a few times, finding it securely fastened. She drew her blade and slashed open the lock with a mighty cleave, sparks flying into the air as metal hit metal. The door fell open and the striped hyena leapt out. Vale's eyes continued to dart around the room from empty cage to empty cage, but Rufus was no where to be seen.
The hyena quickly grew into a larger humanoid shape and leapt up to hug a surprised Vale. He was of course clad only in his fur and I imagined the dhole morph was blushing under her own. "By Akkala, am I glad to see you!" He said as his massive arms wrapped around her frame and squeezed her tight. Yeah, ignore the short mage.
I would not have believed it, but the most irritating "tough guy" in the world was as terrified as a small child. The uncharacteristic behavior was frightening. They broke him... "They got Rufus... They got Rufus..." He murmured into Vale's shoulder plate.
Vale grabbed his shoulders, pushed him away, and looked into his eyes. He was at least a half foot taller than her. "Now listen..." she whispered in a commanding tone. She then began to calmly ask the overexerted hyena-man questions.
By then, something else in the room had stolen my attention.
It didn't look like anything in particular at first, just a cloth draped over the chair in the corner. But I was drawn to it, and I approached it slowly, cautiously... an odd sense of dread filling my heart. Perhaps it was the unnatural whiteness of the cloth. My heart began to thrash against my chest as the blazing red trim came into view. Crimson flames danced around the edges of the fabric. Long forgotten memories flooded my mind as I ran my claws over those stitched flames, feeling their smoothness under the pads upon my fingertips.
By the gods. It was my grandfather's robe...
I was stunned. Paralyzed with my mouth gaping. I had not seen the man in thirteen years... The man who had taught me so much in but a few pages of scribbled notes... My mind was flooded with questions. Was he a victim of these travesties? Was he involved? What in blazes was he doing in Galendor? Perhaps this robe merely belonged to someone else?
"Wait!" Vale's voice broke my trance. I do not know how long I stood there staring at the robe, but by the time I turned around, the hyena was fully dressed in his leather armor and was strapping his broadsword to his back. Apparently his clothing had been conveniently tossed in the corner of the room.
"I'm going to go kill all of those things right now!" he growled.
Lady Vale held a claw in his face. "Do you want them to find us?" she fumed in hushed tones.
"They're going to skin Rufus!"
She slapped him across the muzzle and tried to shake him by the shoulders, but he was too large to budge. "Stop it, Vincent! Where is he? Where did they take him?"
He took a few steps back and dug his claws into the sides of his head, shaking it. "I don't know... I don't know..."
He shook his head a few times before his eyes fell on me, and he jumped, as if startled from not knowing I was there. I'm not that short, blast it. He strode across the room and crouched, his eyes wide with fear. He was really freaking me out now. "You... Virmir, please, you've got to help him!" He was nearly begging on his hands and knees, and I took a step back, realizing I was still clutching my grandfather's robe in my claws. The fabric draped to the floor and over my toes. It was so smooth and comforting... I just wanted to wrap myself in it.
"Vincent," Vale said as she put a claw on his back, "we'll find him... Come on, let's go. We'll need your nose."
"R-right," he stammered. He stood and took a deep breath. The two then strode towards the door, the dhole drawing her blade as she slowly opened it. I bunched the white robe up and tried to stuff it into the pack at my hip. There was no way I could leave it. It was too large to fit completely, but the cloth protruding from the top was not distracting.
Vale gave us the 'all clear' sign and we followed her into the hallway.
Ugh. One more to go.
I was convinced the pig was dead. Vale had a great deal of trouble picking up his scent and it seemed we were beginning to go in circles with all the dismal hallways looking the same. Vincent tried his hand at tracking, taking deep sniffs of the air whenever our squad leader did so, but never catching anything she didn't notice first. I don't think he knew what he was doing. What a moron.
But his enthusiasm was undying. I don't think he had heard the bone-chilling squeal right before we found him. Neither Vale or I could tell him. So we continued fruitlessly searching the empty halls. Ducking into doorways, dodging the occasional plant creature that roamed the dark-stoned corridors. We were going to find him one way or another... I never would have expected such a display of comradeship from the hyena. Could he not survive without his verbal punching bag? Was there something more to the nagging bickering those two constantly engaged in? I didn't quite understand it.
And the structure of the tower was infuriating. It didn't make any sense. It seemed more hallways than anything else, intersecting at odd angles and looping back on one another. The blue glow continued to permeate the bottom few rows of bricks lining either side of the floor. By then I didn't care what any of it possibly meant. I hated to see Rufus go, but we weren't getting anywhere fast. It was time to leave. We had done all that we could... I nearly mustered the courage to demand just that.
Then we heard another squeal.
All of our ears stood on end. This time it was much closer. We stood in a small corridor intersecting a larger hallway ahead. A brown boar dashed past the intersection, its hooves madly clattering on the stone floor. I had never seen Rufus in his fully animal form, but I didn't suppose it could have been anyone else. Go figure.
Vincent took a few steps forward. "Rufus!"
"Shhhh!" Vale grabbed him and threw him against the wall. A rumbling sound filled the air, as if a stampede were on the pig's wake. I thought it best to join the two against the wall.
"He he he he he!!" The shrill laughter echoed down the corridor, an entire symphony of screeching singers. My tail curled between my legs as I watched no less than a score of the vile plant-and-earth monsters surge past the intersection after the pig, screaming all the way. By the gods! They literally kicked up dust as they charged, bellowing their insane war cries with their rusty weapons held high. If any one of them turned to their left as they ran, they would have seen us standing there down the intersecting hall. But they were so fixated on chasing the pig, the entire army charged right past us. I was too paralyzed to move for a full minute afterward.
Before I realized it, the two were peeking down the hallway after the surging army.
Oh, blast it!
Trailing an army of insane screaming imps down echoing corridors is not a difficult task. We could have ran directly behind them with our weapons scraping against the walls and they wouldn't have noticed. Still, we kept our distance and followed as quietly as possible. It wasn't long before the square corridors of the underground tower gave way to a long narrow tunnel of jagged stone, much like the one we originally traveled through. Had we left the underground tower completely? Indeed, the blue luminescence disappeared with the hallways, and I was forced to summon a witchlight. How the pig continued on through the darkness was beyond me, but it was evident he had, as the screaming voices of the plant creatures grew more and more distant down the tunnel. We could only follow and hope they did not turn around. Of course, they made so much noise we would have known it long before they arrived, but it was still a jarring thought.
And what in blazes were we going to do if we caught up to them? There was no way the three of us could fend off forty of the blasted things! Blast it!!
Heedlessly we followed the echoing screams down the corridor. They moved faster than the three of us, so the gap between us grew by the minute. As comforting a thought that was, it also meant that we would be left far behind if the creatures actually caught the boar.
Then the noise suddenly stopped. The silence was so unexpected we slowed our paces to a tiptoe as we became aware of the noise our own foot falls made. After a few bends, the tunnel opened up to a small room bathed in a familiar pale cerulean glow... It seemed a dead end at first, but the rock wall ahead contained a circle of blue crystals. Another portal... this one through the wall rather than the floor.
Vale recognized the crystals and immediately barged forward.
"Wait!" I demanded. I took a look at the crystals as I did before. These ones did not bare cracks like the others, so there was less of a risk of them breaking when we traveled through. Still, we had no idea what was on the other side of the rock... Could this be our ticket out of this subterranean nightmare, or did it lead further in?
"Let's wait a few moments for the plant creatures to gain some ground. We don't want to appear right in the middle of them..."
"But Rufus needs us!" Vincent snarled at me.
I folded my arms. "He needs us alive."
I could not get them to wait more than a minute. Blast it, here we go again... When we were ready, I sucked in my breath and the three of us stepped through the liquid stone wall together...
I felt the cool breeze flow through my entire body as I did when traveling through the last crystal portal. But this time the experience was doubly strange as I felt as if I were moving forward, yet my feet were still planted on the ground. In but a moment I was thrust out the other end, still standing upright, yet it felt as if I were atop a carriage that had stopped suddenly (or crashed), and fell forward on the ground.
Frigid night air welcomed me. The chirping sounds of the forest caressed my ears, and the scent of plant life filled my nostrils. Outside... we were outside! I clutched the sand in my claws and drank in the sounds and smells of nature. The night was freezing and I began to shiver. Certainly the coldest since my arrival in Metamor. It was a marvelous experience after being trapped in those horrible stuffy tunnels for so long. We were outside at last!
"He he he he he..."
Oh, blast it...
They had us utterly surrounded. Their eyes flashed in the moonlight and their earthy draconic muzzles turned upwards in maniacal grins. They formed a semicircle around us, our backs to a now solid stone wall.
My hackles rose and my lips curled in a reflexive snarl. I stood and spread my arms wide, spilling the energy I had gathered out into my palms. A brilliant crimson orb appeared in each, bathing the dark forest in a bright orange glow. I wasn't going to die without a fight, blast it...
"This way!" I ordered, determining the left flank to be thinner than the right. I charged at the little monsters at full speed, Vale and Vincent on either side, brandishing their swords. Oddly, the creatures did not charge back, but simply stood there. I thrust both of my hands forward and fired both burning spheres.
"Eeeeeeee!!!" The explosion tore them apart, throwing their bodies into the air, wrapped in flame. The dhole and hyena morphs cut through the rest, hacking the vile little monsters out of our way. In but a few seconds we had smashed through their line and dashed like mad into the forest beyond. By the gods, I couldn't believe we were still alive...
After some five minutes of sprinting, we realized we weren't being followed.
"Why aren't... they following us...?" Vale tried to ask in gasps, fighting back her tongue as it tried to roll out of her muzzle. Vincent and I were in no better condition. Our run crumbled into a fast paced, limping walk.
"They... didn't get Rufus, did they?"
Vale shook her head. "No, I didn't see him." I didn't see him either.
The chill began to cut through my panting and I wrapped my cloak more tightly around my body. I wondered if I would grow a winter coat of fur? Being half animal was so strange... I watched my breath snake out of my muzzle in the October night air like a ghost. "Cold..." I realized. "They're plants. It's too cold. They're dying..."
The triumphant moment was short lived. Vincent looked around. "But where is Rufus?"
We stopped and I looked up at the unfamiliar black outlines of the trees. The stars were mostly hidden by clouds, and the moon peeked in and out from behind them as well.
"... And where are we?"