It was dark, the light swallowed so completely that her eyes burned with ghostly afterimages conjured by outraged nerves still straining after sight. Her throat ached, residual pain left by a shriek she had not stifled quickly enough. Her heart thundered, her lungs spasmed, she was deaf, dumb, and blind.
Nothing presented itself to distract her from the immensity of her fear. She could only imagine herself lost in an endless void without hope of rescue or escape. Her legs jerked in desperation and, off-balance, she sprawled face-first onto the floor.
Shocked again, her lungs remembered their work and she sucked air like a well-fed soprano preparing to denounce the sins of Titans. For a moment, all was silent and still. Then she sighed heavily and announced, her voice almost conversational: “Dammit.”
Her name was Daian. She was a soldier.
Large grains in the rough-hewn stone prickled against her cheek and the palms of her hands; it was granite, the same rock that, floating on a magma sea, was usually called a continent. As floor, it was comforting, suggesting the safety of thick walls, high towers, and murder holes. It was so prosaic that it banished even the thought of eldritch horrors. It smelled of death. Not the foul stench of rot and putrefaction, but the sucking desiccation of an eon of silence and dust.
Daian pushed at it and sat on her knees, her hands searching through clothing, armor, and leather straps until they found the clasp of a pouch and snapped it open. She withdrew two rounded pieces of metal, thimble-shaped, and fitted them over the thumb and index finger of her left hand. When she snapped her fingers it sounded like the granite stones were grinding against each other, and a harsh green spark flared briefly, fell to the ground, and died.
She frowned and snapped her fingers again, then a third time, flashes lighting without illuminating anything. Then on the fourth attempt the spark stuck to her hand and erupted, green light leaping between her fingers and pooling liquidly in her palm. It flickered like fire but there was no heat, only the sticky crackle of electricity.
It roared like fire, too, as she thrust her hand aloft, turning sharply, her eyes darting to discover her surroundings. She stood in a room that was both huge and narrow, the walls invisible in the gloom while the ceiling loomed only a few feet overhead. Rows of squat pillars ten or even fifteen feet thick hunched under its weight, so many and so close together that the room was filled with stone more than air.
Unlike the floor, which showed the sharp black lines of hasty chisel marks, the pillars were polished smooth, flecks of quartz reflecting green sparks. They were covered with writing, the symbols so small that Daian could feel her own breath on her face when she leaned close enough to read them. A cloud of dust rose from the stone and she sneezed. Everything was covered in it, powder-fine, invisible until a movement in the air disturbed it. There was a wide dark patch where she had fallen on the floor. And, leading away through the pillars, tracks.
Daian frowned. She did not know where she was or how she had arrived. Effects have causes; and here, at least, was sign that someone else had walked here recently. Holding her light overhead, she set off to follow them.
Leaving the maze of pillars, she passed through a narrow stone arch; the ceiling descended, pressing her down, until she was forced to crawl, holding the light out in front of her. She crawled until sweat ran and her muscles shivered with weariness, but there seemed to be no end to the tunnel. She stopped to lie on the stone and rest for a while, thinking that this tunnel might outlast her strength, or narrow enough that she could get stuck, unable to go forward or turn around and go back. It might. The hand holding her only light trembled and shuddered. She got up and began crawling again.
The tunnel ended abruptly, becoming hole in a wall, a perch over a vastness that whispered with currents of air. Three feet away, a narrow stone lip hung over the resounding space. Daian edged forward and eased herself laboriously to her feet. The wall leaned precariously over the stone lip, and as she sought for a handhold it crumbled ominously, small rocks clacking downwards. She took a deep breath, gripped what seemed steadiest, and swung herself out of her mouse-hole, kicking her feet to find purchase on the ledge. Her grip shifted and she crushed her face against the wall, bloodying one cheek, struggling to keep her balance.
It seemed likely that the wall above her would disintegrate at any moment. She threw herself sideways, her feet scuffling along as she sought for any grip that would hold long enough for her to find another. In a frenzy of shuffling and clawing she reached the far side of the gap and fell face-first into another tunnel. Her light had almost gone out, but she shook the dirt off her hand and it flared to life again. She wasn’t certain whether she could manage any other activity for at least the next several hours.
The floor beneath her groaned and shifted slightly. Her feet and hands came up and heaved her forward, stone collapsing beneath her. Finally, filthy, scratched, bruised, and bleeding, she came to rest on stone that seemed content to stay where it was.
“It might be nice to faint,” she muttered, wincing as she got to her feet. Her torn cheek stung with coolness and she realized that, ahead, there was a breeze that didn’t stink of age and dust. She started forward eagerly, then recoiled, scrubbing at her face and the sticky crawling sensation of walking into a spider web. There was a blue flash and a loud pop, then an acrid, burnt smell. She shook the pain from her fingers and frowned.
Cautiously, she took a step forward only to come up short again, blue sparks jumping from her arm and shoulder, her muscles twitching. Whatever was blocking the passage was invisible in the green light. She looked at her still-burning hand and grimaced, then crumbled the pieces of metal in her palm. Dull flakes of metal rained down and the green light evaporated.
Daian blinked, her eyes watering in blindness, and waited as patiently as she could manage. Her hurts intensified, aggravating her, and she began trying to rub out some of the pain. A blue line shifted a few inches from her face and she realized that she could see, so dimly it was almost more a memory than vision. More blue lines winked and died, looking like light reflected from fine floating strands, in a place where there was no light to reflect. They were glowing, so subtly that they were still almost impossible to see.
Almost impossible. Daian reached over her shoulder; her sword slid out of its sheath with a flat hiss and she swept the drifting threads out of her way, leaving the path clear.
The threads came more frequently as she climbed a narrow, steep staircase, sword leading. At the top a visible blue glow illuminated the passage. Occasionally a sharp blast of air, like a gasp, would come shooting down the staircase. The room ahead seemed filled with a lump of blue light that rippled and wavered in the breeze. She watched it warily for a moment, then sheathed her sword and stepped forward.
The lump was a massive web of glowing blue cable, all snarled and piled in a heap in the center of the room. Her patience and curiosity gone, she simply stepped around it and made her way towards the far side of the room. Her foot came down on something that rolled, grating, over the stones and she flailed for balance. In that instant the chain whizzed out from under her foot, pitching her headlong into the blue ropes. Electricity arched through her body and Daian cursed.
Chains rattled and the lump shifted ominously. Daian hurled herself out of the way as a heavy metal weight, connected by a chain to whatever was inside the magical web, crashed down where she had been. A second passed while she fought to stand, her limbs twitching spastically from the aftereffects of the magical shock. The sound of a winch came from across the room, cranking the chain back.
Abruptly, the lump lumbered forward, blue energy crackling around it, the air whistling as the chain emerged once again, curving towards her with deceptive speed. Another sprang from its mass somewhere and began an orbit intended to end among her splintered bones and pulped flesh.
Beads of panicked sweat springing up on her skin, she stepped away from the swinging chains and metal weights rebounded from stone with shattering clangs, striking white sparks. Instead of letting the chains fall still the machine spun, sending them hurtling erratically through the room. She ducked under one but the other swept her feet out from under her. She rolled and a metal weight, gaining increasing speed, slammed down inches away and hurtled back into the air.
She dove forward but the monster anticipated her move and blocked her, forcing her to retreat or have her brains dashed out on the stones. It was humming now on an almost musical tone, the pitch rising as it spun up to speed. She backed away cautiously into the passage behind her.
The machine-whine slowed and gradually cycled to a stop. The chains were winched back into the central mass. The thing rotated in the middle of the room, uncertain, then suddenly shrank down and went still. She sighed and leaned against a wall, rubbing sweat from her face. Then she reached over her shoulder and drew the sword again. Gripping its hilt with both hands, she thrust herself away from the wall and stood, staring across the room at an arch that she only hoped led outside. Slowly, her eyes narrowed, her nostrils flared, and her jaw came forward.
Then she sprang into the room, her sword a perfect mathematical curve, a graph of deadly intent. The guardian exploded into action as though expecting her. A chain snapped forward. She shifted her grip and then a metal weight fell to the ground with a crash, the chain severed by a tremendous two-handed blow. Not daring to pause, she cut again for the glowing blue tendrils that shrouded the main bulk.
Her sword rebounded harshly, but part of the web peeled away, severed, revealing a metallic surface that glistened like oil or blood. Her arms tingling and numb, she dove back into the passage. Behind her, chains clanged to the floor, rattling violently, and the entire mass of it shuddered like a machine that had suddenly hung.
In a blast like heat off a furnace, like water flashing into steam, it howled, sending her staggering back still further. Great clawed hands thrust from its bulk as it hurtled at her, in rage or a perfect imitation. She stumbled and fell. It slammed into the mouth of the passage, caught, wedged, metal and magic grinding against the stone arch as it fought to reach her, claws tearing white scratches in the walls.
She watched it back away and attempt to make itself small enough to fit through the arch. Whatever shape it had under the concealing magic, it could not quite manage to do it, but it seemed determined to try nonetheless. It pounded on the stone blocking its advance, sending chips flying and threatening to cause a collapse.
Daian gripped her sword for reassurance and inched forward, daring it. When it grabbed for her she ducked aside and slashed at more cables of magic. The creature stumbled backwards and screamed in its terrible voice. Seizing the opportunity, she hurled herself at it, slicing at cables, at anything that presented itself. Magic ropes fell away, severed, and her blade rebounded off metal. She ducked its claws, hacking away at what magic still covered the thing. The glowing web ripped free, vanishing in a brilliant flare and a stench of burnt metal.
She flung herself away and hit a wall, where she clung, panting. Only a faint breeze blew through the room, carrying away the burning stench. Blind for the third time, she felt her way to the passage leading on and staggered along it, moving as quickly as her battered body could manage.
She burst from the tunnel into the light of midday and stood, blinking at jagged rocks and the rolling dunes of a desert. In the sand, tracks led off into the distance. They were already fading under the abrasive force of the wind.
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