Jake isn’t dead.
He opens his eyes, looks around. He is huddled on the floor, arms over his head in a pointless attempt to protect himself from the collapse. Only, he hasn’t been crushed. Nearby, the others are squatting in similar positions, lifting their heads, glancing about in surprise.
All except Mathos.
The mage is standing in the middle of the group, arms raised, face contorted by strain and concentration. All around them, broken stone blocks are evidence of the complete collapse of the Hall of Ancestors. Except somehow they are alive and safe within a bubble of space, an invisible dome, through which no debris from the collapse has penetrated.
“Mathos,” breathes Jake, “are you doing this?”
Gritting his teeth, the mage manages an excited nod. “Pretty sweet, huh?”
Hamfrd barks a joyous laugh. Elaine sighs with relief and clutches her medallion to her heart.
“That’s awesome,” says Jake. “How long can you hold this? An hour? Half a day?”
“About thirty more seconds,” gasps the mage, face red from the effort.
“Oh,” says Jake, deflated.
They are momentarily safe within the confines of the invisible dome. The collapsed ceiling looms overhead, piled up on top of and around the bubble. The toppled throne of the Sun King and the dais from which it was knocked free are also within the diameter of Mathos’s dome. The only light is from his magical orb, which dims and flickers.
“Twenty . . . seconds,” grits the mage.
“Oh, shit,” says Jake. “You weren’t joking.
Mathos shakes his head. Strains. “Nope.”
“Hey.” Scarlet is on the dais, clearing rubble from the collapsed wall that previously dislodged the throne. “Hey, there’s a hole here.”
“A secret passage under the throne?” asks Jake, face lighting up.
Hamfrd laughs with relief, and strides up to the dais to help clear the rubble.
Elaine, head bowed and eyes closed, kisses her medallion, and hurries forward.
“Fifteen seconds, you guys,” Mathos says through clenched teeth. “Do whatever you’re doing fast.”
“That’s good,” Scarlet announces, pushing aside a final heavy stone. “Let’s hope it goes somewhere.” She scoots forward and slips into the hole and is gone.
Hamfrd turns to Elaine, ushers the cleric in next.
Jake grabs Mathos, guides the mage up the steps towards the revealed hole where the throne once sat. Hamfrd gives a thumbs up to the pair and squeezes himself through the opening.
“Come on, buddy,” says Jake, standing over the hole. He pulls the mage forward.
“Five seconds, Jake. I can’t . . . I can’t hold it anymore.”
Jake peers into the dark hole in the floor. Sees the top rungs of a ladder. “Okay, he says, stepping in. “Here we go.”
He drags Mathos with him. Beads of sweat roll down the face of the mage, veins bulge in his neck, and his arms, still raised overhead, tremble with strain.
“I can’t . . . hold it,” he gasps.
There’s a rumble overhead.
The invisible barrier disappears. The Hall of Ancestors resumes collapsing down on top of them.
Jake drops into the hole, pulling Mathos with him, plunging into the darkness below.
He lands heavily on a sharp pile of stones and rubble. The mage lands on top of him. More rocks and dirt crash down on top of the both of them.
They lie in darkness.
The sounds of the collapse die away, and then the only noise is Jake coughing as the stirred up dust tickles his throat.
The weight of the mage and broken stone press down on him.
“You alright?” Jake croaks, trying to determine if he himself is okay. Nothing feels broken, although several sharp rocks are digging into his back.
“I’m alive,” Mathos says, sounding surprised. “Jake, you saved my life!”
“Well, only after you saved mine,” he gasps. “All of ours. Nice work, Mathos.”
“Oh, wow! Did I land on you? Are you alright? Are you hurt?”
“I think your knee is on my groin.”
A flame flares to life close by. Suddenly, the space is filled with dancing shadows and light bouncing off rough rock walls. A narrow tunnel is revealed. Hamfrd holds a burning torch aloft. Elaine is beside him.
“Scarlet?” asks Jake.
“Here,” says the fierce woman, stepping into the light. Her face softens to a scowl. “Glad you made it.”
* * *
They walk single file as the narrow tunnel twists and turns. Mostly the ground is level, but sometimes they are climbing upwards, presumably towards the surface that must be somewhere above. And at one point, the angle suddenly slopes sharply downward, and the five companions work their way ahead carefully, clinging to the outcroppings of rock that squeeze in on them from both sides to keep from sliding down into the darkness along with the loose bouncing pebbles kicked up by their passage.
Eventually, they reach a spot where the narrow tunnel ends in the darkness of open space and the ground drops away at their feet. They stand at the edge and peer out into a vast natural cavern. Mathos sends his orb of magical light ahead, and the glowing sphere illuminates thick stalactites hanging from the cavern’s ceiling, some of them several feet in diameter at their widest, tapering to points near the ground. Beneath them on the stone floor, squat stalagmites grow up in the other direction. Here and there they have met and formed columns in the gloom. Beyond, in the barely revealed shadows, the calm black surface of an underwater lake lies still as smoked glass in the glow of the mage’s orb.
The floor of the cavern is perhaps a dozen feet below the ledge that the five companions find themselves perched upon. One by one, they drop down to the ground, the sound of their boots landing on the stone floor echoing through the otherwise silent cave.
The cavern is damp and cool and stretches out ahead of them into darkness. The group weaves a path between the natural columns, footfalls scraping over stone, packs and armor jingling and creaking in the otherwise oppressive silence, to the edge of the water.
A moment later, they stand together looking out at the flat black surface of the lake. Its far shore remains unseen, hidden somewhere farther out in the darkness of the vast cavern. The glowing orb hints at the looming stone ceiling overhead.
Jake picks up a fist-sized rock and tosses it into the water, out in the middle of the lake, where it lands with a plunk and a splash. Ripples blossom from the spot where the stone sinks out of sight, spread across the surface, eventually coming to lap against the stone at their feet.
“How deep do you think it is?” he asks.
“I could push you in,” offers Scarlet, smirking.
Hamfrd points with his mace off to their left. “Here.” A narrow strip of solid ground, a few feet wide, leads around the edge of the water, following the contours of the cavern wall, which glistens with dampness in the orb’s light. It seems to be the only path open to them.
“This way, friends,” calls the big man, striding ahead without looking back. The flame of the torch he carries surrounds him in a warm orange glow, shines on the stone of the cavern wall beside him and reflects off the water by his feet.
Mathos goes next, urging his glowing sphere along with him. The ball of light floats out over the surface of the water, zigging and zagging as though examining its surroundings by the light which it provides. To Jake, who pauses to observe the orb move, it seems almost like a living thing, a giant intelligent firefly maybe.
Jake watches for a moment, then walks after the mage.
Elaine follows the swordarm, adjusting her ponytail as she walks.
Scarlet comes last, peering down at the black water with distaste before following the cleric. Small waves, remnants of the ripples produced by Jake’s rock, still lap against the stone.
* * *
The walkway narrows precariously at times as they make their way around the edge of the lake. Outcroppings of sharp rock and the slant of the cavern wall threaten to force them completely off solid ground. No one is particularly thrilled at the prospect of jumping into the lake. Hamfrd, pausing at one point to stick his heavy mace into the black water to measure its depth, fails to find the bottom, even just an armlength from the edge. They walk single file; at times, they are forced to shuffle sideways, against the slick rock wall.
Mathos sends his glowing orb ahead to scout, but its distant light reveals only more of the same. The cavern is vast, and the size of the underground lake remains a mystery. There is only the still black surface of the water, their echoing footfalls, the scraping of shoulders against the wall on their left, and above all the everpresent gloom of the dank cavern.
The passage of time becomes difficult to estimate. They may have been following the edge of the lake for ten minutes or ten hours. The cheap torch Hamfrd carries burns down, and he tosses the spent shaft away. The cavern slips into an even deeper, brooding gloom, broken only by the eerie magical light from Mathos’s orb.
They hear the soft whisper of tinkling water before they see the source. A few moments later, Hamfrd, at the front of the group, pauses, raises a hand to stop the others. An outcropping of stone bulges from the cavern wall across the walkway, blocking the path. Along its side, a steady trickle of water from somewhere above runs down the rock, and then flows through a narrow channel that has been worn over time across the ground. The water below trembles where the flow dribbles over the edge and joins the lake.
“Friends,” calls the big man, “it may be time to get wet.”
“I’m not getting in that water,” mutters Scarlet, at the rear of the group.
In front of her, Elaine leans close with a conspiratorial smile. “Little bit scared, huh?” she jokes.
Scarlet’s face darkens into a scowl. “No.”
Elaine, blushing from her failed attempt at lightening the mood, tries to laugh it off. “No, of course you’re not,” she says quickly. “I didn’t mean . . . I was just . . .”
Elaine snaps her mouth shut, nods curtly. “Shutting up.”
Ahead of them, the big warrior has already jumped into the water with a loud splash. He floats against the ledge, pulling himself forward with one hand on the rock and holding his bulging pack on the opposite shoulder, up away from the water.
Mathos, perched at the edge and peering down at the black water, fingers the thick fabric of his robes. “You know, this material really isn’t meant for swimming,” he says. He turns to look at Jake. “Once it’s wet, it stays that way for–”
The mage yelps as the swordarm pushes him off the walkway. Mathos splashes into the water. Surfacing, he spits and sputters, and then reaches out for the edge. He spares a hurt look for Jake before pulling himself along, following after Hamfrd.
Jake turns to the two women, grinning wide. “Catapult!” he shouts, and throws himself into the water, tucking tight to produce a tremendous splash. When he surfaces a moment later, Elaine and Scarlet are scowling down at him. He swims after Hamfrd and Mathos, who have climbed from the water on the far side of the outcropping of rock that blocks their path.
“Guess I’m next,” says Elaine, staring at the water. She steps forward to hop in.
Scarlet grabs the cleric’s arm.
“What is it?” Elaine asks as the fierce woman’s fingers dig into her.
Scarlet pulls the cleric close, speaks low into her ear. “I . . . don’t swim.”
Elaine’s eyes widen with surprise. “Scarlet, you can’t swim?”
“Quiet,” the other woman growls, squeezing tighter. “Or I will end you. And the Allway will be on my side.”
“Aww. You’re confiding in me, Scarlet. That’s so sweet.”
“Oh, Gods,” she mutters. “Kill me now.”
“But seriously,” says Elaine, “we live in a port city.” She lowers her voice to a whisper after seeing the dark look on Scarlet’s face. “How have you never learned to swim?”
“We’ve known each other how long?”
“About two months,” answers Elaine. “Since the beginning of the summer.” And she wonders, has it really been so long already? Two months since she first arrived in Gulfside, a newly risen Elevated straight out of the Temple, brought there by word of an adventuring guild in need of a cleric of the Allway. Two months since she joined Scarlet and the others at Highstar House.
“And in all this time,” hisses Scarlet, “have you ever seen me go near the water?”
Elaine scrunches her brow, thinking.
* * *
INSIDE THE WINSOME SAILOR, A TAVERN IN GULFSIDE, A FEW WEEKS EARLIER
Elaine adjusts her ponytail beneath her wide-brimmed hat and grins down at Scarlet. “We’re all going down to the beach, today,” she announces happily. “Wanna come with?”
Scarlet glances up, scowling. She sits languidly in her chair, one leather-clad leg up on the filthy surface of the table beside a mostly empty cup of the usual foul-smelling spirit she drinks. She’s sharpening one of her knives, scraping the blade along the whetstone.
“It’ll be fun,” Elaine says, only slightly daunted.
Scarlet ignores her, focuses her attention back to the knife blade sliding over the sharpening stone.
“You do like fun,” Elaine tries, “don’t you?”
Still scowling, Scarlet says, “I have loads of fun.”
The blade stops moving. Scarlet stares up at the cleric.
Elaine gulps, but manages to meet the fierce woman’s glare.
“I’m having fun right now,” Scarlet says, face expressionless, knife in hand.
Elaine expels a noisy nervous laugh and backs up a step. “Well, you keep on having fun, you” — she points at Scarlet, forces a grin, steps back again — “you fun-loving rascal, you.”
Scarlet’s eyes narrow.
“Okay, I’m going,” Elaine announces, turning on her heel and darting towards the exit.
* * *
INSIDE THE WINSOME SAILOR, A TAVERN IN GULFSIDE, A DIFFERENT DAY
Elaine, wearing a thin, loose-fitting white robe draped over her shoulders, stands beside a filthy table in a shadowed corner of the tavern. Scarlet leans back in a rickety chair, one leather-clad leg up on the table’s surface. She’s eyeing a fat-bodied beetle that is crawling across the sticky wood, oblivious to the danger it is in. Scarlet’s left hand hovers in the air nearby, index finger primed and ready to flick the insect away.
“We’re going to the beach,” Elaine announces, smoothing the thin robe over her hips. Underneath, she wears a casual dress over her modest swimwear. Despite the layers, she feels moderately exposed, standing there in the grimy tavern. She forces herself to smile. “It’s going to be fun. Wanna come with?”
“I’m gonna lay in the sun,” Elaine continues, clasping her hands together, thoughts drifting ahead to the beach. “Catch some rays. Bake myself.”
“Sounds terrible,” Scarlet says.
The beetle has paused to examine a crumb of stale bread.
“Don’t you like the sun?”
“The sun is evil,” Scarlet growls.
Elaine laughs lightly. “That is objectively false.”
“You’re objectively false.” Scarlet turns her head to stare at the cleric.
Elaine forces her retreating smile back onto her face. Only slightly daunted, she says, “I’ll bet the water’s nice and warm. We could go swimming.”
Still staring straight at Elaine, Scarlet releases her primed finger, flicking the beetle from the table. There’s a soft click somewhere across the room as the bug smashes against a wall or the floor or another table.
Elaine expels whatever she was about to say as a burst of nervous laughter instead. “I’m just gonna go now,” she says, backing up a step, gesturing towards the door.
“See ya,” Scarlet says, face blank as stone. She reaches for her drink.
* * *
IN A DANK CAVERN SOMEWHERE BENEATH THE RUINS OF THE TOMB OF THE SUN KING, THE PRESENT
Elaine’s eyes grow wide and a smile comes to her face. “You never come with us because you can’t swim?” She laughs lightly. “All this time I just thought you didn’t like me.”
Scarlet regards the cleric, silent.
Gradually, the smile fades from Elaine’s face. “Oh.”
Mostly undaunted, the young cleric brightens again. “Well, hey,” she says, placing a hand on Scarlet’s shoulder. “It’s going to be fine. We’ll be in and out in a flash. And you can hold onto the edge the entire time.”
“Don’t touch me,” Scarlet growls.
Elaine flinches her hand away. “Right. No touching. Sorry.”
From up ahead, beyond the outcropping of rock, Jake calls out to them. “Are you two coming? What are you whispering about?”
“Not a word to anyone,” Scarlet hisses in the cleric’s ear.
“How do they not know?”
“Are you kidding?” Scarlet snorts. “You’ve met them. They’re oblivious.”
Elaine grins, and then brings a hand up and makes a show of sealing her lips shut with her fingers. “Not a word,” she agrees.
“Scar?” calls Jake. “Elaine?”
Over her shoulder, the young cleric says, “We’re just having a moment, Jake. Relax.” Her tone is giddy and girlish. She can’t stop herself from clasping her hands together. “Bonding.”
Scarlet rolls her eyes, face darkening into a scowl.
Before the special moment can pass, Elaine urges the other woman to follow her lead. She squats down to the stone floor, and sticks one leg after the other into the water, and then slips from the ledge so that she’s submerged up to her armpits. She keeps hold of the edge the entire time, and after an encouraging glance up at Scarlet she begins to pull herself along, passing around the rocky obstruction, to join the others.
Behind her, Scarlet splashes into the water and follows after the cleric, hands gripping the edge tight, face an unreadable mask.
After both women have pulled themselves up out of the lake, they stand with the men, dripping water onto the stone. Mathos is at the lake’s edge, twisting water out of his saturated red robes.
“About time,” Jake teases, grinning.
“I’m fine,” Scarlet announces. “That was fine.” She stares down Jake, draws one of her blades. “I’ll cut you.”
“Whoa, take it easy,” says the swordarm, grin faltering. He puts his hands up, seeking peace and mildly confused.
Scarlet growls, daring Jake to say something else, which he wisely decides not to do.
“Everyone ready?” asks Hamfrd. “Aye? Shall we continue?”
When Hamfrd starts forward, the rest of the sodden group of adventurers follow one by one, walking against the cavern wall around the edge of black lake, which remains agitated from their passage, waves slapping against the stone ledge.
Before following after the three men, Elaine leans towards Scarlet. “See? Not so bad.”
Scarlet twists her lips, but comes up short of scowling.
“Maybe when we’re back in town I could teach you how to–”
“Yeah, that’s not happening,” Scarlet growls.
“Not happening,” Elaine agrees, pointing at Scarlet and forcing a laugh like it’s all cool. And then aloud, says literally, “It’s all cool,” and flashes an awkward thumbs up before turning and hurrying after the others, blushing.
Scarlet watches the young cleric go, and the edges of her mouth curl up ever so slightly.
Sheathing her blade, she follows after the group.
* * *
Behind them, the unsettled waves continue to slap along the stone ledge where the companions have splashed in and out of the water.
Farther out in the darkness of the cavern, an unseen shape briefly breaks the surface, sliding silently after the five companions before slipping back out of sight beneath the water.
Fresh ripples spread out across the surface of the black lake in the wake of its passage.