Heather’s eyes darted around the structure of the mine head. Either our villains are certain they’ve got everyone, or whoever’s left is trapped down below and isn’t a threat to them. Chances are good someone has disabled the mine elevator. No good reason for the necromancer to leave it easily accessible. No good reason for any survivors to want the horrors to be able to use it.
The elevator shaft at the top of the mine was empty. Somewhere far below, the elevator car waited. Heather ducked into the shadows alongside Sienna and Corbin, the tension transforming into focus as she put her mind to the situation.
If the elevator is disabled, it could be either the necromancer’s work or the survivors. Hopefully it was the survivors; they’d want the elevator with them down there. If it isn’t disabled, the survivors would want the elevator down there with them. That way they get a little more warning from the noise of the lift, if it starts moving upwards. Might make the difference if they send skeletons down. And if the necromancers know there’s miners down there, they’d get a warning before the miners could escape.
Heather fell into quiet step behind Sienna. They ducked down a silent stone corridor, carved smooth and tall to allow for the passage of equipment. There was no missing the dusty, heavy steel door Corbin indicated. No blood on the floor, no disturbance on the dust. Nobody’s come this way in a long time, noted Heather.
Their eyes strained in the dark, while Sienna slowly opened the steel door. The hinges gave a little tell-tale groan as dust and metal worked and ground on each other. Heather held her breath as the door continued to resonate. The creak of steel on steel carried and amplified as it echoed into the darkness of the unlit emergency corridor. Nobody’s used the door recently, either, Heather thought.
Heather stepped through first, shield at the ready, eyes straining uselessly in the yawning black of the passage descending before them. It was easier to trust in her ears, letting the soft echo of their steps guide her forward.
“Step through and close the door, you two. If something comes, a closed door will be less interesting to a skeleton than an open one,” Heather whispered.
The last little light that bled through the doorway was cut off as Corbin and Sienna shut the door behind them. The hinges shutting were much quieter. Hinges kept maintained. Rock dust gets into everything, but there was only enough to make it creak on the opening. They might not use it much, but they maintained it often enough, when the miners were alive, Heather thought.
Come to think of it, all the bodies out there were military. Not a miner to be seen.
Corbin produced and lit a tiny, mirrored lamp with red-tinted glass, little bigger than an crabapple, and cast the wan red beam ahead of them. The stone ahead was uniformly gray, dense with adamant ore, and planed smooth by the magic and strength of the dwarves who had once cut the passage. The ramps were steep, and twisted back upon each other like stairs would.
Corbin uses a red light to preserve any night vision. Why does the mine have ramps, instead of stairs?
It didn’t take long for Heather to puzzle out the solution: For the emperor’s adamant, of course. And probably any equipment too heavy for the elevator. Much less likely to trip on a ramp if you’re running out in a panic, than you might on stairs. Less risk of falling and hurting yourself if you had to head down, too. If you had to haul ore up by hand, you’d rather use a ramp than stairs. Stone’s too dense for safe carrying. It sure is hard on the knees walking down, though.
They started down the ramps, the darkness past the beam of the little lamp absolute. The dim red glow of the tiny lamp was enough to keep their feet on the ramp, but not much more. It was quiet, deep in the bedrock stone, the only sounds those of their breathing and the softest scuff of their feet. Occasionally, there came a creak of armor or the pop of over-tensed knuckles.
“How far down?” asked Sienna, her whisper no louder than her footsteps.
“All the way,” growled Heather. “They’d be as far from that horror as they could get.”
“Then not all the way,” murmured Corbin, as they wound their way down the passages. “They mine safety shelters into the stone at regular intervals, safe places in case of a collapse or accident.”
“And if they’re throwing meat and offal down the hole.” Heather said with a grimace. “They won’t want to be too close to that mess-”
From far below, the sound of a water drop hitting a puddle made them all freeze. Heather lowered her voice, and continued. “- so we’ll have to check those safety shelters. How far down is the first one?”
“They’ll be marked on the doors that open into each level,” murmured Corbin. “I know they’re spaced out. I’m not sure how many levels are in between each one.”
“Any idea how deep the mine goes?” asked Heather.
“Forty-three levels, last I heard, times whatever space they leave between each level,” replied Corbin. “Lots of stone between us and the bottom yet.”
They wound down into the darkness, stone walls of the ramps bare and plain except for occasional scrapes where equipment or an automaton had scratched stone. Every ramp ran about forty paces long, before turning sharply in on itself to twist and descend. Every ten twists of the steep ramp, a steel door inset in the stone cast back a bit more of the red lamplight than stone did.
The fourth door down was marked with a green circle. “This one. We’ll start here,” Corbin said. They paused briefly to give aching knees and calves a break, and then Corbin slicked nervous fingers through his hair, and pulled open the door.
The corridor was full of whispers, distant, distorted, that all fell silent at the slight scrape of steel on stone. Everyone froze, and the only sound was the distant, wet SPLAT! of meat falling from high above and landing somewhere far below.
An occasional drip of moisture made the chill of the night air pouring down the hole even more uncomfortable. The warmer air of the mine rose from below, carrying up the unmistakable scent of blood. Heather shuddered, her gorge rising and settling. The smell here was far worse than the courtyard they’d left behind.
All that flesh and blood cast down like a midden. All that pain and horror left to fester down here. My only comfort is they’re already dead. Save the ones you can. Find out everything you can. That’s the job. That’s the mission. Do your job. Heather clenched her teeth and hands, repeating the mantra, the only reason she had left to live. You swore an oath. Do your job.
The arch leading into the shelter was easy to make out, with solid adamant braces the size of plows sunk into the rock to reinforce it. The shelter was dimly lit by runes once inscribed by the miners themselves. Fuelled by their hopes of salvation, and the fear of the dark stone closing in forever, the runes were fit to light the darkness for years before needing replacement.
Heather’s skin prickled, and the hairs on her arms stood on end before she’d even slipped through the arch. She took the lamp from Corbin’s hand without a lick of argument, and traced it across the haphazard outline of an improvised barricade. Stone furniture had been upended, pushed into a semicircle around the back of the shelter. The barricade was unbroken, and it took Heather some careful navigation to step around the heavy stone furniture and investigate.
The bodies of ten miners lay behind the barricade. Heather’s eyes swept over them, cataloguing the scene: Most of the dead are dwarves. Small wounds on the skin, looks like daggers to the wrists and neck. Some on their inner thighs, or the inside of their upper arms. Some of these look self-inflicted.
All the bodies were frightfully pale, even by the dim red light of the lamp. They look dried out, dessicated, Heather thought. Looks like these two took pickaxes to their own skulls.
Heather crouched down, and carefully stepped over to the corpses. She swept the lamp across the first body she could. A woman, dwarven, with stark black hair. Her face had been pulled by rigor mortis into a frightened grimace. A dagger was in her right hand, and a great gash had been opened down her left thigh, clean through the thick leather miner’s pants she wore. Heather used her mace to open the bloodless wound a little wider, confirming her suspicion. Femoral artery. She’d have bled out fast. Clean cut. No signs of a battle here. Suicide?
She shone the light over the dagger, and frowned. But her knife is clean. No dried blood on it. No dried blood on the ground, either.
Heather swept the lamplight across the floor, and around the woman’s body. Sure enough, the stone underneath the bodies was free of the black stain of dried blood. She ran a finger across the stone floor. The floor was clean, free of dust, as if it had been washed.
Distantly, the whispers had started up again, soft, intermittent, distorted. There were definitely words in there, somewhere in the indistinct din of water droplets on stone and whispers too distorted to make out clearly. “… vital … rain…”
They’ve been down here long enough to need water. Supplies must be running low in the shelters.
“Detective, did you hear that?” murmured Sienna.
Heather grunted. “Yes. Still a long way down, I think.”
Heather’s eyes swept again over the dead, and she frowned. No blood. It’s all gone. Gone from every one of them. Suicides might cut the wrists, or even the neck, but not the femoral artery. Definitely not the brachial artery, that’s a painful place to be cut. And there’s not a lick of blood on their weapons. Nothing on the ground, no blood, not even any dust. Unnaturally clean floor. Was the room and the bodies cleaned before they were laid out here? And if so, why? If I was a necromancer, why not pile their bodies with the corpses topside, strip their flesh and set their bones to work like the soldiers?
Sienna scuffed her foot, deliberately, just enough to draw Heather’s attention. Heather looked back, nodded, and clambered back over the improvised barricade.
“Looks like suicides,” commented Sienna, her whisper sounding troubled.
Heather shook her head. “I don’t know exactly what happened to them. They’ve all bled out, but there’s no blood in them, and no blood around them. I’m pretty sure they fell where they died. All the body positioning is natural, for dying of blood loss. I’d suspect our Necromancer was baiting a trap, but there’s no reason to bait a trap to somewhere you don’t expect anyone to show up in.”
“I know I’ll regret asking this question when it comes my next time to sleep,” muttered Corbin. “But what would a necromancer need with all that blood?”
Heather shook her head. “I don’t know. A clever necromancer can work with almost anything. Transfusions, maybe. There’s monsters known to drink blood, but they also eat flesh and bone, and so they’re not popular with necromancers.”
Corbin grunted. “You don’t want pets eating the hired help.”
“Exactly,” agreed Heather. “A lot doesn’t add up here, yet. If the necromancer needed good blood for something, he could have taken all he needed topside.”
“I hear more whispers,” murmured Sienna. “Definitely from below. Do we keep going?”
Heather looked to Corbin. “Can you keep going?”
“Of course,” replied the Lord Goldbrace. “We’re here. No sense in leaving until the job’s done.”
Heather turned away. “Then let’s go.”
Descending a second time was worse. Before, the oppressive silence of the mine’s emergency passage had at least suggested safety, or that survivors might be hiding. Heather shivered. Now that we know there’s dead inside, too, this place feels like a tomb.
It was slow going down those steep ramps, their knees and hips aching protest at the sharp descent. The silence was intermittently broken by the sound of water dripping onto stone or puddles, somewhere far away in the dark.
The air is warming up, Heather noted, as they opened the next steel door. She had to open her coat a bit to let out the warm air trapped under it. The temperature kept rising, the lower they went. The humidity spread the rank smell of spoiling meat and blood across their palates like the taste of a steak gone bad. Corbin found a handkerchief from a pocket and pressed it over his own nose, grimacing. They stepped through the next marked door, and into the mine tunnel beyond.
In a way, the smell being so overpowering was a relief to Heather. It doesn’t smell like my bedroom did, anymore. Even in my worst nightmares, the smell was never this bad. This feels like it can’t be real. Saints alive, I wish it wasn’t real.
They stepped out into the walkway around the mineshaft. The mine entrance, far above, was too dim to make out anymore. This time, the shelter arch glimmered at the opposite end of the mineshaft. I’ll have to make sure I keep the lamp pointed away from the shaft. Don’t care to let anything know we’re here, Heather thought.
With darkness above, and darkness below, the only light offered to their eyes was the wan red glow of the lamp. It didn’t help Heather’s nerves that Corbin and Sienna were carefully keeping themselves out of the beam. The only assurance of their presence was the soft sound of their breathing behind her, and the periodic soft scuff of felted shoe on stone.
They were half-way towards the next glimmering archway when there came an almighty SPLAT! Heather ducked reflexively, as something light bounced off her helmet. Sounds like the moment in a butcher’s shop when the butcher slaps a steak down on the chopping block, Heather noted. She had ducked out of reflex, but her mind worked on reflex, too: Probably meat dropped down the shaft. They usually work in pairs. Keep your head down. There’s more coming.
Sienna allowed a slight squeak from her throat, as the next glop of human meat and fat hit the railing not a foot from her hand. It exploded in a spray of gobbets and gore across them, sending them all jumping half out of their skins. Heather fell to her knees, scrubbing her face, retching and spitting and counting her mercies that she hadn’t eaten in hours.
The Lord Goldbrace produced another handkerchief, and pressed it to Heather’s face and mouth. To muffle me? Or to let the perfume cover the stink? Either way… she shot a grateful look up to him, and hoped he could make it out in the dim red light of the lamp. Scrubbing her face hastily of the human remains, she rose to her feet.
Distant whispers echoed in the dark, and the tang of human blood hung in the air. Sienna bit her own gloved hand, then allowed a very soft, high-pitched sound out of the back of her throat. It was the stillbirthed sound of a scream she didn’t dare let loose, but couldn’t entirely prevent.
Heather steadied her with a firm hand on her shoulder. “Good,” she said. “Keep it together, Consul.”
The Consul gave a whole-body shudder, and then slowly drew her gloved hand free of her mouth. Even in the dim red glimmer of the lamp, Heather could see the distinct imprints Sienna’s teeth had left in the leather.
“Tell me,” murmured the Lord Goldbrace to Heather, his tone equal parts wry and pleading. “This is the worst situation you’ve been in.”
Heather gave the man a look of pure agony. “Not even close,” she whispered in return.
They picked themselves up off the stone floor, and crept ahead into the second shelter. This time, the prickling of the hairs at the back of Heather’s neck was intense. I feel like a goddamned porcupine, she thought to herself. Her eyes swept the room, top to bottom, left to right, seeking the source of the magic she felt, but no source revealed itself.
This time, there was only one corpse.
He was another dwarven miner, with beautiful blond curly hair and matching beard. Through his beard, he had golden thread woven into the intricate braids. His bright blue eyes, gone cloudy in death, stared in horror at the darkness that lay behind them. His back was to the back wall of the shelter, and he sat facing the archway.
His left and right wrists had bloodless bites torn out of the flesh, and a scrap of his own skin still hung from his teeth. Sienna made a small sympathetic sound, and crouched beside Heather as the knight examined the corpse.
“He did this to himself?” Sienna asked.
Heather lifted the dead man’s dry lips. Ordinary dentition. Healthy mouth. Right bite diameter. Looks like he got some of himself caught between his teeth there. No blood, dried or otherwise. Gums as gray as can be.
“Yeah,” said Heather. “Looks like he tore his own wrists out with his teeth. You knew him?”
Sienna nodded. “His name was Montague. He sung very beautifully, wrote poetry, and spoke kindly to others. I liked him. Everyone did.”
Heather checked the man’s coat, belt, and pants. “No dagger on him. Nothing bladed at all. No pick. There’s a book here.” She rose, and searched the tables with her eyes. “There’s some barely-touched bread and cheese over there. I think he came in here to eat a quiet lunch. Poor soul.”
She turned her eyes back on the victim, frowning in thought so hard her brow was beginning to cramp. And his beard and mustache around his lips are spotless. Not the slightest fleck of blood on him anywhere, it looks like. How do you bite your own wrists open, and not leave blood anywhere, much less everywhere? The floor’s spotless, again.
Heather shuddered, the murky depth of a suspicion rising up her spine with an uncomfortable tingle. Where did the blood go?
The sound of dripping and flowing water was more pronounced, down on this level. The whispers were still heard intermittently, between the dripping sounds of the sea trying to infiltrate the mine: “… rich vein … vital … something’s moving … flow rate.”
The words were more distinct, this far down. Less distance, less echoes. Flow rate? Are they going to flood the mine? Can they even do that from down here?
“Lord Goldbrace,” Heather said. “The pumps that keep the mine dry, are they powered and operated from the surface, or from within the mine?”
Corbin gave her an apologetic grimace. “I’m not certain. You’d have to ask a mining engineer. I’d expect that they would be powered from the surface, but probably operable both from the surface or in the mine. You’d want multiple places to activate them in case of an accident and flooding.”
“And they drain out to where? The sea?” Heather asked.
“Yes, they pump up and through the fortress sewer, and it flows into the sea from there,” said Corbin. “On rainy days you can see the fortress sewer spouting off the cliffside.”
Heather raised her fingers, and very gently shut the dwarf’s eyes. She bowed her head in silent prayer. Saints mercy, Montague. Saints guide you and watch over you, in this life and the next.
I wish I had half the strength you did. I’d have torn myself in two long ago, to be back with my husband and son. What did you see down here, that made dying this way better?
The Consul briefly touched Montague’s hand. Then she rose, and Heather joined her. Heather flipped open the book she’d found in Montague’s coat, and fanned through the pages while the Consul looked on over her shoulder. Everything written within it was poetry and songs, then blank pages, and then the last page bore neat, well-schooled printing in graphite:
Just in case:
I’m not sure what’s going on. Mine boss said something bad was going on topside, yesterday. All the guards got topside, something about an emergency briefing. Sergeant John told me whatever it is, staying down here is safer.
They cut the lights. That’s expected. Protocol’s to get to the shelters if they call a drill. We should all be at the bottom shelter, but it’s too packed in there for good air, so we split our shifts.
Things have been going splat outside for a while now. Some bloody chunks of someone. Can’t imagine that’d be the work of our side. Shift one’s going to hold down the elevator, make sure they can’t call it up. Mine boss won’t allow us to lay any charges, says the adamant’s worth more than our lives or our family’s lives. Nobody likes that.
I keep hearing whispers. Shift one relocated up after the ghasts wouldn’t shut up.
If I don’t make it, tell my mom and sister I love them, and send my wages home to them. Have them sing The Miner’s Passing at the shrines, please. – Jollifer Montague, Second Shift
The bottom of the page had water spots, where tears had fallen. Heather let her face crumple, and she carefully folded the notebook closed, and tucked it behind her armor. “Okay, Montague,” she whispered. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Sadness and anger stirred in Heather, and threatened to burst free. Give it shape, she thought. Point it at someone. Point it at that necromancer. I’d burn his heart right out of him, right now. You’d better hope the hangman finds you first. Because I’m laying this one at your feet too, before I lay your corpse down in that pyre.
Heather rose to her feet. She didn’t ask this time if the Consul and Lord were following her deeper into the mine. The grim set of Corbin and Sienna’s eyes told Heather all she needed to know. They’re here to do the job now, too. For him. For the others like him. People they knew and cared about. For their families, for the ones left behind. Welcome to the life of a church knight.
Heather waved them on, and Corbin and Sienna fell into step, their eyes casting off into the darkness nervously. The whispers from below followed them as they made their way to the ramps for a third time, the dripping of water a steady, slow cadence through the spaces between stone.
Eleven dead so far, down here. Eleven souls without a Guiding, left to find their own way to the Saints or to haunt the mine. Hundreds more above. What length won’t these bastards go to? How many lives cut short, bonds severed, ties lost? How many families have to die, before I do?
They all walked with weapons drawn, Heather’s hopes of finding any survivors had been reduced to those distant, steady whispers. The Consul nervously tapped the flat of her blade against her leg, and the Lord Goldbrace absently thumbed the edge of his sword.
From below, there came a long, moaning scream, reverberating up the mine shaft. “Ghast,” said Heather, automatically. “Not dangerous.”
Not compared to what’s on the surface, anyway, she thought.
“Died badly, from the sound of it,” remarked Corbin. Despite the shaking in his voice, he forced a wry tone atop his fear. “Wasn’t Montague’s ghast, at least. Terrible voice.”
Sienna made a disapproving sound. Heather managed a grunt, and murmured: “They scream what they felt in their moment of death. Sometimes words. Usually just sounds. Ghasts are emotion without will to shape into magic anymore. This place is going to need a hell of a Guiding when all’s said and done.”
“Let’s just hope we’re not the ones needing the Guiding, then,” remarked Corbin. “I wouldn’t be caught dead at a Guiding in clothes this drab.”
Despite herself, somehow, Heather managed a small laugh. You’re one of those soldiers, Lord Goldbrace. Always ready with something funny to say, to hold the horror back. You’d have been in good company with my Dad. Her hand gave the mace in her fist an affectionate squeeze.
The third descent down the ramps sent shooting pains of protest up Heather’s trembling legs. Muscle exhaustion and knee strain reminded her constantly that she wasn’t a young dockside knight anymore. Corbin was having the harder time of it, hitching in his step, while Sienna’s soft, felt-soled shoes allowed her to slide smooth and silent down each stone ramp.
Heather passed her the little red lamp, allowing Sienna to scout ahead, while she and Corbin took a minute on the ramp to stretch. Stretching worked some of the cramps out from their thighs and backs, and helped re-center their minds.
The ramps were no longer silent. Soft drip-drops could be heard constantly, and now and then a drop of condensation fell from the unseen ceiling overhead, soaking into the felted edges of armor or the wool of a cloak. The smell of blood grew more intense in the air, going from a coppery tang to a slaughterhouse miasma. Heather found herself breathing through the perfumed handkerchief Corbin had given her more and more. Even that couldn’t block out the scent of blood, not entirely. The whispers of the survivors occasionally seemed to bleed through the rock, with a scrap of a word, or a murmur that might have been water.
“You’re sure those aren’t ghasts whispering, Blackthorne?” asked Corbin.
“No, I’m not sure. But it’s unlikely. Ghasts usually just scream. Maybe they’ll scream a name, sometimes. Someone they love. Someone they hate. Someone they miss. Never more than a few words, and always a shout, a scream, something loud and strong. They don’t usually whisper, and they certainly don’t string together phrases.”
“You deal with a lot of ghasts, Knight Blackthorne?” asked Corbin.
“It’s the most common complaint a Detective gets, m’Lord. A few a month in the big city. Finding them is the hard part. After that we call in a spirit-walker to Guide the ghast on its way. Usually they’re near a corpse, with an unsolved mystery attached.”
“Ah, that’s where you come in, then,” mused the Lord Goldbrace, sighing as something in his lower legs gave a satisfying pop. “There. I’m ready to keep going. That hip isn’t what it used to be.”
“Good. The next shelter door should only be another thirty-five ramps down,” Heather said.
“Are you always such a ray of sunshine in the darkness, Blackthorne?”
Heather didn’t dignify that with a response.
Sienna coughed from below, and they hurried to rejoin her. “More whispers ahead. Clearer. We should try to be silent from here,” whispered the Consul.
More whispers from below floated up to them, distorted by echoes, lost to each bounce of stone. Scraps of conversation, different voices trickling into Heather’s straining ears: “… sweet … flood. Push… …heart… rise.”
As soon as Heather pulled open the third marked steel door, she froze. The glimmering, dim glowstones of the third shelter cast just enough light to make out a thin stream of blood running down the floor underneath the arch. It was trickling out of the shelter, down the smooth stone walls. From there it dribbled down the mine shaft, where it fell swiftly into the darkness below. The whispers were definitely louder, and clearer, now. Rising from below, the sibilant whispers hissed: “-moving. Blood. Cardiac ventricle.”
“Heartbeats,” whispered another voice from below. “Lub-dub.”
I don’t think we’re going to find survivors, thought Heather. Whatever those are that’s whispering, it’s no ghast.
Heather wrapped her hand tight around the head of her mace, the palm of her glove pressing hard to the silver spikes. Sienna and Corbin clutched their weapons tightly, their eyes darting into the shadows all around them. They cautiously moved forward, towards the shelter, staying away from the edges of the shaft.
The condensation cycle was pronounced, down this low in the mine. Water dripped constantly from above, anywhere the rock overhung, and the stench of blood was thick in the air. Heather crouched low, hoping to keep her profile minimized. The wan light of the shelter’s glowstones cast long, exaggerated shadows in their wake. The three crept, and then crawled, in towards the shelter.
There were no corpses inside this one. No signs of struggle or battle. Just blood, all over the floor, in a thick puddle, oozing away into the mineshaft.
The voice came from directly behind them, rich and wry in self-satisfaction. All three whirled, weapons at the ready, Corbin’s hand came away from his sword with a small drop of blood on the edge of his blade.
There was nothing there. Heather’s skin was crawling as if her own bones meant to mutiny and dance their way away on their own. Magic here. No flows, though. I’d feel those. Not a ghast, maybe, but something close enough to it.
“It’s not a ghast, I think,” said Heather, shakily. “Still just a voice, though.” I hope, she added mentally.
When no further voices or whispers intruded, and the darkness didn’t come alive to attack them, they slowly untensed.
Corbin made a small noise, and bit down on his lip to stifle it, clenching his left hand tight to his side.
“What is it?” asked Sienna, as softly as she could, close by the Lord’s ear.
“It’s nothing. Just a little poke. Cut myself accidentally,” replied the lord, with an embarrassed smile. “That voice startled me. My hand slipped when I turned. You did always say I was too clumsy in the kitchen.”
Sienna frowned. “I never said any such thing. And you’re an army bladesmaster, Corbin. Since when do you slip with your blade?”
Corbin shot the Consul an irritated glare. “When a ghastly voice creeps up behind me in the most dreadful place I’ve ever been, I suppose.”
“Shut up,” said Heather. “The whispers have stopped. Sienna’s right. Look.” She held up her gauntlet, close to one of the glowstones. Her leathered hand gleamed, wet and a dull crimson-black.
“Oh Saints,” whispered Sienna, swallowing. “That’s not water, out there. Or on us.”
“It’s blood,” said Heather, her voice rattling a false, hollow calm. Her skin had gone clammy, and a droplet of sweat running down her spine felt like the worst of winter’s ice.
I’m covered in their blood. It’s all around me, in the dark. We’re all covered in their blood. In their meat. Oh Saints. I’m somewhere past terrified now. I don’t even know what this feeling is. My ears are ringing again.
Heather planted a hand against the nearest wall to keep from swaying, and her eyes swept to the puddle of blood. Something in the way it’s flowing…
The flow wasn’t right, in the lights. There was something wrong with it, with the way it drained. It kept drawing Heather’s eyes back to it, not to the puddle, but the thin stream leading down, down, down into the mineshaft. Her back was prickling up to the nape of her neck, a humming in her jaw of tension, the sensation of magic unbearably close-
“My lord! Cover your wound, now!” barked Heather, not caring that her voice rose.
It knows we’re here already.
“It’s a tiny poke,” groused the lord, holding his hand up. Then: “- ah.”
It was not a tiny poke, but a cut down his palm almost an inch long. Blood dribbled freely from it, splattering on the stone floor. Droplets rolled down the stone like water on well-seasoned cast iron, leaving nothing behind on dust-free stone. In moments, it joined the flow of blood towards the drainage channel.
Flowing away from the mine shaft.
The blood is flowing uphill. Heather grabbed hold of Sienna. “Bandage him, now. Something’s coming.”
It’s already here.
“It’s just a scratch!” complained Corbin. “Look, my blade’s clean. Nothing serious.”
Sienna leaned in to the blade, sucking in a breath. “His blade is clean, Heath- ah! Fuck!” The consul drew away, a hand clutched to her cheek.
The hissing voice came from all around them, a voice as liquid as the hiss of rain, the trickle of blood over stone.
Sienna’s hand started shaking as she clutched at her cheek. Corbin reared back from her in surprise. From between her fingers, a bit of blood fell, and splattered softly on the stone below.
“Bleed,” whispered the voice. “Sing. Free.”
She leaned in too close, and cut her cheek on his blade. Heather’s eyes darted between the two, replaying the moment back in her head. She’s anything but clumsy. Corbin didn’t move. She did it to herself. But their surprise is real. And how long have I been clutching my mace so hard? Ow.
“Sweet flow. Free. Join. Drip drop.” The whispers were close. Different voices, blurring together in tones and accents, hisses and whispers and gurgling little giggles.
“Shut up!” roared Corbin, his sword in his uninjured hand readying itself. The swordsman’s body slid into a tense, explosive-looking stance, blade low, arms straight, knees bent in a half-crouch. But as his eyes darted around, seeking a foe, his sword wavered subtly, the tip of it getting uncomfortably close to his throat.
Heather observed it all. Corbin doesn’t notice it. Sienna does. There go her eyes, widening. She’s putting two and two together.
“Sheathe your weapons! Both of you, NOW! Peacebind them!” Heather bellowed at the two.
“Like hell I will!” barked Corbin. “It’s her bloody fault, she leaned in too close! I’m not leaving myself undefended.”
Heather strode up to the lord and grabbed his sword-arm hard in her hand, hard enough to make Corbin wince and look into her challenging eyes. It wasn’t the lord’s eyes that hers wanted to shy away from, it was what they wanted to shy to that made her swallow. Don’t- Don’t look at the blade. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about the blood the blood the blood ins- in- inside wants to be f-free my boys I could be with my boys one slip-
The lord’s sword was unconsciously gracing his own throat, the keen edge of the steel grazing over skin. Corbin wasn’t even aware of it, his eyes still staring at Sienna.
“No!”, Heather bellowed, right in the Lord’s face. She clubbed him in the mouth with her gloved fist, knocking his neck away from his sword. Her gauntlet wrapped around his blade, and pushed it away. Don’t look at it, don’t think about it, don’t wish the gauntlet wasn’t there and the blood would run away flow away-
Heather shook her head clear of the foggy, whispering thoughts. “Put it away! The blood wants out, don’t you get it? That’s not rain out there. There’s no water in here anymore. It’s all blood.”
Corbin reeled from the blow, and sucked on his bloodied lip where her fist had split it, one hand rising to brush his neck where his blade had been a moment ago. He shuddered. “It… I want…”
“- to let it free. Yeah. Me too,” interrupted Heather. “Too bad. Sheathe it. Fast. It’s working magic on us. We’re getting out of here. Sienna? Get your dagger back in your sheath. Now. Or I’ll slap you too.”
The Consul recoiled in surprise at the threat, but hastily shoved her dagger back into her sheath. The first thrust of it missed, and skidded off the leather of her leggings, but the second time it slid into the sheath and she wound cord hastily about it.
In the back of Heather’s mind, she analyzed: No damn sense bringing edges in against the undead anyway. Blood. Ghasts. The feelings of betrayal, of horror, of all the murdered people. Put enough emotion together, you get magic. Without will to shape it, I guess it all got left to shape itself. Congeals together like all this blood. If it were a natural source, we’d call it an elemental, or something like it. Whatever it is, it wants all the blood it can get. Could this be a spirit? They don’t manifest without a spirit-walker. Saints help us, is one of our necromancers a spirit-walker too?
Heather helped the Lord stuff his sword into the sheath, and pointedly triple-knotted his peace bond cord. Then she turned and repeated the same with Sienna’s blade. Like a mother tying shoes, so my son won’t trip and skin his knee, and let out all that sweet blood onto the ground onto the stone rolli-
Sienna didn’t hesitate, and her slap was far kinder than Heather’s fist had been on Corbin. But it was enough to interrupt the flow of thoughts. Heather shook the trance off, and managed to look up gratefully to the frightened Consul. “Thanks.”
“You were whispering along with it,” said Sienna, fear creeping into her voice. “It got inside you.”
“A little,” Heather agreed, trying not to choke or dry-heave at the admission. “That helped. Thanks.”
“Thank me when we’re safe again?” Sienna said.
“Yeah. We need to get out of here as fast as possible. The longer we’re here, the more danger we’re in. Look.” Heather pointed to the floor. “Don’t give it a drop more than you need to.”
The flow of blood up into the large puddle was noticeably running quicker, the blood frothing as the puddle continued to grow. Thin, creeping trails of blood were beginning to wind their way up the stone like growing roots, towards them. Corbin’s hand was still bleeding, a steady little stream of blood far more copious than it should have been for such a small wound. Likewise, Sienna’s face continued to dribble bright red blood. There was no missing the way the droplets leaving her face fell at an angle, towards the puddle.
“Sweet blood. Flow. Hemorrhage. Venous. Bleed.”
The disembodied voice echoed from all sides, now. It was everywhere, coming from below, and from above. The sibilant hisses chattered through the words maniacally, some gurgling, others whispering, or shrieking joyfully. Every word and voice different, discordant, inviting their tongues to follow along.
Heather swiftly wrapped her handkerchief around Corbin’s hand. Sienna did the same with her handkerchief, pressing hers against her cheek. It was no use, the blood slipping off fabric as though the cloth were waxed parchment. From there it inevitably dropped to the floor, where it skittered like water on a hot pan towards the streams of blood on the stone.
“Saints damn this place,” growled the Consul.
“They surely have already,” Heather muttered. “Hurry. Its voice wasn’t so loud in the emergency tunnels.”
The time for stealth is over, at least down here, thought Heather. She let her emotions flow through her, letting them become the magic she needed now. Get away, get away, get to the light, get out of the dark away from the blood. Saints, guide my will.
Heather sorted her emotions like a shepherd might crook a sheep, grabbing her desire to be topside and threw it through her hand, into her mace. The silver weapon lit up brightly, white flames licking off the silver spiked head.
As the light finally revealed the extent of the bloody infiltration around the mine, Heather winced. Oh. That was a mistake.
The stone inside the mine shaft wasn’t just dark, anymore. It was glistening a bright, arterial crimson, speckled with bits of black clot. Blood coated the stone on all the walls, dripped from the ceiling, ran from their clothes where it fell. The mineshaft looked like some terrible, sanguineous throat, vomiting up blood in slow motion. Everywhere she looked, blood was creeping upwards along the walls, flowing towards them.
As they stood rooted in horror, there came a thrumming, wet, mechanical sound from below. It was a great mechanical hum that made the air vibrate, and could be felt through the soles of their boots.
“Is that the pumps?” hissed Heather.
“That’s the pumps,” Corbin said, his voice grim. “Run?”
Heather nodded. “Run.”