|Fantasy Fiction posted March 13, 2021||Chapters:||...14 15 -16- 17...|
Tali and company find unexpected allies in Lagarra.
A chapter in the book The Gemcutters Daughter
The First Broken Links
by K. Olsen
On her journey to save her home by plunging into the Deep, Tali and Prideep have come to Lagarra to rescue their friends and fought off Maruk, leader of the twisted Chosen.
“Bring me the one called Lekt,” Rhesis growled into the narrow tube attached to the speaking stone, a perfect imitation of Maruk’s snarling malice. “Bring him to the summit of the artifice.”
The little group waited with bated breath as the last echoes of the siren’s stolen voice faded. The network of speaking stones that spanned the mine was at least partially active. Whether the summons for Lekt would bring them more than they could handle remained to be seen. Rhesis almost collapsed, but their mage caught her. Despite their previous animosity, Jarek seemed genuinely concerned when he looked down at the siren, gaze settling regretfully on the fresh scars where her arm had once joined to her shoulder.
“We need to move,” Tali said, hoping her trepidation wasn’t painfully obvious in her voice. “Eiv, would you please carry Rhesis? I don’t think she’s going to be able to walk.”
“I am fine, little dwarf,” Rhesis said as she trembled against Jarek’s chest. The siren’s pain was obvious in every sharp breath. She smelled of sweat, blood, and suffering.
It made Tali’s heart ache. The siren had endured this for the young dwarf’s sake, a reality as unjust as everything else in this place. She put a hand on Prideep’s shoulder, even though she was certain she needed the bolstering more than the goblin did. “Thank you for fighting Maruk, Prideep,” she whispered as they made their way painfully up the sloping passages towards the crown of the artifice. Lagarra was too deep to have access to the surface, but Tali was willing to bet the vents reached larger caverns with good natural zephyrs to sweep away the toxic smoke. If they were fortunate, there would be carved walkways down halls just beneath that leading out of the artifice.
“He is quite the little warrior,” Jarek said, trying to infuse his tone with any lightness as he handed Rhesis off to their stone golem. Eiv could carry her effortlessly without tiring. “A regular whirlwind of fury.”
Prideep puffed out his narrow, frog-like chest. Every rib protruded as he filled his lungs, the bone not anywhere near as dense as that of a dwarf or skyborn. Goblins could endure physical punishment mostly because they flexed rather than breaking. Every point of articulation in their bodies was double-jointed, but nowhere more so than their long, suction-cupped fingers and toes. “Prideep is bravest goblin!” he squeaked.
“I believe it,” Tali said, a tiny flicker of warmth in her chest breaking through her fear.
They made their way upwards for almost an hour before reaching the crown, a circular area of the artifice with a vast vaulted ceiling. Gigantic grates formed pillars and dome of the chamber, allowing massive plumes of smoke from the mines and smelters below to vent up into a giant cavern system that would dissipate the pollution for miles upon miles of tunnels, swept by the wind towards acid lakes and deepfire.
Just as Tali had hoped, there were a number of lower halls beneath the grates that lead outwards, sealed by corroded metal doors. Her clicking echolocation mapped the dwarven symbol for an artifice’s exit on them and they weren’t guarded due to the unpleasantness of the chamber they adjoined. Opening them would be a challenge, but less of one with her stone guardian’s brute strength.
They were not alone for long.
From a passage to their left, four forsaken emerged. These twisted creatures seemed even more viciously damaged than Lekt: each one was more scar tissue than muscle or so it seemed from the stiffness to their movements. Their bodies were still almost dwarven, however, long torsos and arms thick with muscle, legs like pillars. Three were male, one female, but they all boasted the claws and fangs of their monstrous kind.
None of them had metal as a part of their body, however. She heard them clicking their teeth to create sound that would map the area and reveal her friends, inhaling air in sharp breaths to catch any hint of smell aside from the overwhelming reek of smoke. The sounds showed them plainly as well, though: none of the four were Lekt. Tali’s heart sank like a stone cast into a lake.
“Kinslayer, are you here?” the lead one growled, his voice barely more than a whisper. She heard something in his tone that she hadn’t been expecting: fear.
Were they afraid of her?
Tali sucked in a deep breath. Despite how terrifying the forsaken were to her, she felt a distinct sympathy for the creatures. Fear was becoming a constant companion for her, even when she managed to overwhelm it and act in the Deep with something approaching courage. “I am,” she said, stepping out from the outcroppings that Jarek and the others had flattened against to minimize their presence. “I don’t want to fight you.”
The four paused when she announced her presence, uncertainty revealed in their posture and the quiet whispers between them that even Tali’s keen ears could not make sense of. Then the leader, a horribly scarred forsaken with one missing eye, advanced three steps towards her. “Why have you come, kinslayer?”
“To rescue my friends,” Tali said, all the fearlessness she could muster in her tone. “Where is Lekt?”
“We have hidden him beyond the artifice,” the leader said. He hesitated for a long moment before saying, “We did not wish Maruk to harm him more.”
“You saved him?” It was hard not to show how startled she was.
“Not all in Lagarra heed Maruk at all times,” the forsaken said. His growling voice was still cautious, still ready for violence, but not entirely hostile. “I am Iolur. Lekt told us of you, kinslayer.”
“My name is Tali Khondurahl,” the young dwarf said softly. “You aren’t here at Maruk’s command?”
Iolur shook his head, the scars of a whip easily visible across his cheeks and forehead. The more sound he made, the easier Tali could perceive him. He was older than she expected and his spine was clearly crooked from how he stood, no doubt broken several times over. “Maruk has no use for one like me.” The other three were much younger, probably Tali’s age, waiting nervously behind him. “Nor do the Maker’s Chosen. They cast aside all who cannot work.”
“Why are you here, Iolur?” Tali asked softly.
“To see if Lekt spoke true,” Iolur explained. “We have fought Maruk and his for long in the dark, in secret, in hiding.” He tilted his head, one ear towards Tali. “I think Lekt is right. You are a kinslayer who does not slay kin.”
His fellows murmured slightly to each other, something between disbelief and a tiny glimmer of hope. The whole thing felt so very surreal to the young dwarf.
“Eaters?” Prideep croaked behind Tali, peering out around a cleft of rock cautiously, his tongue darting out to moisten one of his bugging eyes.
“I don’t think so,” Tali said, relaxing slightly. She focused on Iolur. “I don’t want to hurt you or your people, Iolur. I don’t want to see you bound and tortured, either. Lekt is my friend. Is he injured?”
“He only spent hours beaten in the salt mine,” Iolur explained, his posture softening slightly to match her own. “Bitter, but not hurt worst. Your one-armed creature suffered more.”
“Can you take us to him?” Tali asked hopefully.
“Can we trust them?” Rhesis countered weakly, still cradled with surprising care against Eiv’s stone chest. Apparently the golem appreciated her more after she’d refused to give up Tali’s location to the creatures tormenting her.
The four forsaken seemed to hesitate at that, less in dishonesty and more in uncertainty. If Tali had to guess, she assumed that they thought she would turn away from them in suspicion or lash out in anger. How many times had their masters beaten them down for that exact reason?
“We can,” Tali said with a confidence beyond what she felt. Her own fear didn’t show in her voice, through some miracle. “They came this far to warn us that Lekt was safe and they haven’t attacked us yet.”
“Betrayal…” Jarek warned, his voice trailing off slightly when he realized the relief spreading through the four. “It seems they feel much as you do, Tali.”
“Lekt is no fool,” the female forsaken in the back of the group said. “Nor liar. If he says the kinslayer means no harm, that it is not a thing of evil, perhaps it is so.” She stepped forward, seemingly summoning her courage. “I am Yari. I fought for Maruk once, no longer. These are my brothers, Bar and Zuth. Bar is a slave to the fires, Zuth is a bonesetter.”
Her brothers, close enough in voice pitch as they whispered to be twins, were just as beaten and abused as Iolur was, their natural strength crippled by the abuse they had suffered. All the same, they moved with Lekt’s hardness and Tali knew a confrontation with either one would end very badly for her. They were creatures who knew very well how to use the wicked iron knives they wore in their ragged belts. “We should go quickly,” Zuth said, eyeing Tali and her companions with caution.
“If Maruk lives, his wrath will fall on us if we stay,” Bar agreed. He was taller than his brother by about an inch and seemed slightly more genial than his brother. “Let us meet Lekt and the others.”
“Others?” Jarek asked, a hint of worry in his tone.
“Those who fight Maruk in the deeper darkness,” Yari said when Iolur nodded to her. “Those who hate the chains. Follow us, kinsl—Tali.” She corrected her speech hastily, but sincerely.
Tali nodded and motioned to her friends. “Let’s get out of here,” she said with a nod of agreement.
“We have many questions for you,” Zuth said as she drew near them, his growling voice softening slightly. He held something out to her. “Lekt said give this to you. You would know then that we are not enemies.”
Tali clicked once and a smile split her face. In his hand was the diamond she once used to test hardness that she’d given to Lekt, still as beautifully carved as ever. She stepped close enough to take it from Zuth, fingers brushing gently over his palm. “Thank you, Zuth,” she said sincerely. “I’ll have to hold onto it until I can give it back.”
“This is rather strange,” Jarek commented as he followed with Prideep on his heels. Eiv brought up the rear, still carrying Rhesis. Together, the two parties hurried towards one of the corroded doors, led by Yari and Iolur. It took them only a few moments to wrench the door open, considerable strength aided further by prybars that could double as brutal weapons. “I didn’t realize there were dissenting factions.”
“Any who are chained might seek to break their prison,” Rhesis rasped. “It is difficult to be surprised by Tali’s excessive trust when you have known her as long as I have.”
“You’ve only known me a few weeks,” Tali pointed out defensively.
Rhesis let out a weak laugh. “Point proven.”
Tali couldn’t even be irritated by that, not when it was a sign of the Rhesis she’d grown attached to, surviving despite her grievous injuries. The young dwarf sighed in relief instead of arguing and hurried after their new acquaintances.
The winding passages out of the artifice slowly cooled from an oppressive, infernal heat that only spared Prideep because he wore the fire-swimmer scale like an ill-fitting breastplate. The goblin was downright comfortable in his protection from flame and raised temperature, a rare thing for a creature so accustomed to the cold waters of the depths. The soft slaps of his long feet on the stone was immensely reassuring behind Tali, as was Jarek’s limp and Eiv’s stony stomping.
The forsaken they were with hurried as much as they could with their old injuries robbing them of any grace. Yari and Zuth moved to bring up the rear while Iolur and Bar led the way, forming almost an escort for the strange little group that had joined them. Their way led them winding through caverns and tunnels, almost running for nearly an hour before they slowed their pace at all.
Narrow passages of stone decorated with the carved statues of forsaken tormented and crushed by the steely claws of demons gradually gave way to a crystalline forest. Massive growths of quartz and other minerals rose out of shallow pools in this section of caves. They were grown enough even to make Eiv look small, creating echo chambers and distorted areas where it would be fairly easy to hide. It took a great deal of clicking on Tali’s part to reveal that there were indeed the occasional forsaken hidden in those little alcoves. The maze of crystalline growth was no doubt far more defensible than just an open cavern.
None of the forsaken warriors moved to speak with them or do more than nod at their passage, sentinels focused entirely on their guard duty as they gripped their spears or slings and watched the road for any pursuit from Lagarra. Eventually the path among the pillars of quartz became a cavern brimming with life centered around six pools of pure water of varying size linked by a network of small streams. Fungi and lichens studded the stone everywhere, the ground around them surrounded by older decay that they fed upon. The familiar smell of nightsoil used to feed a farmed forest came from one end of the cave, well away from the flowing water. Many of the growths were fluorescent in cerulean hues, their light scattered and refracted by the occasional outcroppings of crystal.
Hidden amongst the shade of the caps were a number of crude bedrolls. There was no sign of fire, but a few cave norvar lizards had been butchered and there were signs of them having been eaten raw, bones snapped for the marrow.
“Tali,” a familiar voice rumbled. Lekt came limping out of the forest camp, covered in welts and cuts from a whip. All of the wounds were angry and inflamed from exposure to salt, but someone had clearly rinsed them out and stitched the worst ones closed.
Tali used the last of her fading energy for a sprint, almost tackling Lekt over. He made the harsh sound in his throat that she knew was the beginning of a laugh, surprisingly not cut off by anger or fear. “I’m glad you’re alive,” she said, squeezing him as tightly as she dared with his injuries, which wasn’t very.
“Same,” Lekt promised. “Others?”
“We’re all alive, though Rhesis is badly hurt,” Tali replied, relief surging through her body. She let go of her forsaken friend and took a step back, almost stepping on Prideep, who had followed quickly.
The goblin scaled her back, perching on her shoulders with one long, flexible hand covering her eyes as part of holding himself in position to look down at Lekt. The large suction cups on the end of his fingers anchored themselves to Tali’s face. “Good you alive,” the goblin confirmed with a loud chirp. “Hero Gem Dwarf happy, Prideep is happy.”
Tali knew better than to try and pry the goblin off her face. Those little fingers could easily leave bruises and were very difficult to dislodge. She would have to suffer this indignity with grace, much to Rhesis’s giggling amusement. It was probably part relief for the siren too, to be away from Lagarra and all its horrors, so Tali didn’t hold it against her friend.
Jarek started to chuckle as well. “What a fine rescue team.”
“He did stab Maruk to save everyone,” Tali said with a sigh. “I suppose that gives him the right to perch.”
Prideep puffed out his narrow chest and his throat at that, letting out a deafening croak of triumph, followed by squeaking laughter. After a moment of posturing, his full two-and-a-half foot height added to Tali’s to stand above everyone else present, he scampered back down her back.
“How modest,” Rhesis said, a sort of teasing exasperation in her exhausted voice.
Iolur stepped forward again. “Be welcome in this place,” he said, gesturing at their meager camp. “We have...much...to talk about.”
Prideep Wraaka - goblin warrior joining her on her mission.
Eiv - a stone golem guardian from Tali's home city.
Rhesis - a siren freed from imprisonment far beneath the surface of the earth by Tali.
Jarek Vrana - a human mage rescued from the hands of the forsaken.
Lekt - a twisted forsaken who has been befriended by Tali and company.
© Copyright 2021. K. Olsen All rights reserved.
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