Out Of The Dark
The cavern explodes into light.
Jake brings a hand up to shield his eyes.
The advancing spiders visibly shrink away from the brightness.
Elaine stands among the companions, medallion of the Allway raised before her and shining bright. The brilliance is too much to look straight into.
Every corner and crevice of the cavern is bathed in the divine white light, every rock and pebble on the floor illuminated, along with all the gruesome evidence of the spiders’ feeding through the years. Scattered human and animal bones, knives and swords, a handleless axe, broken pieces of plate armor, mail, helms, buckles, shields.
And the spiders themselves in all their horrific detail are exposed by the bright light: thick brown fur covers their bodies, matted and stained; razor-sharp hardened ridges run the length of their jointed legs; a bundle of black eyes, like a nest of fish eggs in the center of each face; and maws of deadly dripping fangs.
For the moment, the nightmarish creatures are reared back, shying away from the divine light.
Hamfrd, rubbing his eyes and squinting, bellows a laugh. “They’re even more terrible in the light. Well done, cleric.”
“I can hold them back,” Elaine says, turning in a circle to look over the effect she’s causing, “but I don’t know for how long.”
“Can’t you just sizzle them?” asks Jake, “like you did with that thing in the lake?”
“The great subterranean typhlosquid,” Mathos inserts.
Jake shushes him. “We’re not calling it that.”
“I could,” Elaine says, “maybe one or two at a time. But–”
“In the meantime, the others would be on us.” The swordarm nods grimly. “Got it.”
Elaine shakes her head. “No, I was going to say–”
“Over here,” calls Scarlet.
The group turns to see the fierce woman scramble up a sloped portion of rock where the ground meets wall, and then seemingly crawl into that wall and vanish.
A second later, her head reappears and their eyes work out the optical illusion obscuring a narrow opening.
Hamfrd and Mathos hurry to join Scarlet. Elaine, keeping the medallion raised and casting its brilliant light throughout the chamber, begins taking small backwards steps. Jake moves at her side, a hand on her shoulder guiding her across the debris-strewn ground.
Already, some of the spiders are beginning to dismiss the bright light and come forward again, towards the retreating group.
When Jake and Elaine reach the spot where the ground slopes into the rock wall, the swordarm spares a glance over his shoulder. The hidden crack, when seen straight on, is actually more like window into a neighboring chamber. It requires climbing across several feet of smooth sloping stone, and through an opening wide enough to admit a crouching Hamfrd.
The big man and Mathos have already gone through with Scarlet.
Jake helps Elaine up onto the sloped stone, steadying her with hands on her waist.
Her right foot slips, and the medallion dips slightly. The light loses some of its intensity. Jake holds her until she can regain her balance. He guides her up, moving backwards, pulling her along.
The brilliance of the medallion’s glow has definitely faded as Jake scoots through the window in the rock. The spiders are clearly losing their fear or awe of the light, and begin to scuttle across the chamber, a mass of pistoning legs and fur and unblinking black eyes and horror.
“Duck your head,” Jake tells Elaine, and then he’s pulling the cleric through the narrow opening, and slipping backwards, spilling into the new chamber revealed by the window. Elaine tumbles after him, the light from her medallion winking out.
The cave settles to near dark, the glow of Mathos’s orb still with them, but now seeming wan and dull after the brilliance of the cleric’s divine light. But it’s enough to see by.
Enough to see the scrabbling legs of a spider poking through the opening, hardened shell scraping against the rock. Just two legs at first, then another pair. The bulk of the creature’s body fills the window; shining black eyes set in a furry face stare at them. Jaws snap. In another moment it will be through.
“Fry it,” Jake tells Elaine, helping her to a kneeling position. “It’s just the one.”
She is still gripping her medallion before her, though its light has gone. She squeezes her eyes shut, then shakes her head, opens them. “I can’t,” she says.
“You said you could fry one or two of them at a time,” Jake insists.
“Yeah, I could,” she says, flustered. “But I can’t.”
He stares, not understanding.
“I mean, I can’t kill it, Jake.”
The beast in the opening in the rock continues its struggle to get through.
Elaine and Jake face each other. “It’s just . . . I have a thing, okay? I can’t kill spiders ever. They eat the bad bugs. And I mean, look at it. It’s stuck.” She pleads with her eyes, willing him to understand.
“These spiders don’t eat bugs, Elaine. They’ll eat us. They ate the Hammer and Shield Guild.”
Nearby, Mathos calls out, “I’m leaning towards the ancestors, Jake.”
“Not helping, Mathos.”
“Friends,” calls Hamfrd, from the edge of the orb’s glow. “We should be leaving this cave sooner rather than later.”
“Can I borrow this?” growls Scarlet, snatching Jake’s sword from its scabbard without waiting for an answer. She stalks forward, past Elaine and Jake, and scrambles up to where the giant spider is still fighting to push through the opening. Dodging its flailing legs, she hefts Jake’s blade and thrusts it deep into the beast’s bulk, in among the black eyes glittering with the light of the orb that floats overhead. She holds the blade there, pressing her shoulder against the creature’s furry cheek.
Body spasming, it lets loose a mournful, pained squeal. Mouth snapping futilely at Scarlet, the spider’s legs twist and scrape against the rock as it dies.
When it’s no longer moving, Scarlet slides the blade out, turns and hops down to the ground. Holds the sword out for Jake to take. “There,” she says, mouth twisted with distaste, “problem solved.” Her eyes pass briefly over the cleric before she turns and moves to join Hamfrd several paces away.
Elaine bows her head and clutches her medallion tighter, cheeks warm.
“You gave us time to escape. You saved us again,” Jake whispers, a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s go.”
From the cavern they’ve just left behind, beyond the body of the dead spider that blocks the opening, they can hear the angry scratching as dozens of sets of legs scrape against rock, seeking a way through.
* * *
They follow the winding cave onward through the gloom, wary of the giant spiders getting through and following or finding another way around to them. Hamfrd and Mathos lead the group, the mage’s light overhead revealing branching passageways leading off into darkness. They choose the most promising ones and keep the group moving forward. Jake stays beside Elaine, several steps behind. The exhausted, shivering cleric continues on without a word of protest, one hand clutching the medallion on her chest. Scarlet brings up the rear, following in the wake of the shadowed glow of Mathos’s orb, keeping a watchful eye behind the group for any danger.
Hamfrd hears it first, the tinkling sound of water running over rock. A moment later, the light of the orb reveals a dark pool rippling gently as a steady stream of water flows into it. Hamfrd points, and the group tracks the wet rocks and the shallow stream of water through the next cavern and the next, eventually splashing through puddles as the flow of water becomes even greater.
Soon they can hear the constant pattering of heavy drops of water falling and splashing onto rock, and a quieter, steady roar.
“There’s light ahead,” Hamfrd grins, speaking over his shoulder to the others. “I can see it.”
The passageway angles sharply upwards, narrows. They splash through the water that flows at their feet.
Hamfrd squeezes through a tight corner and suddenly he’s looking at the natural light of day. The big man bellows a laughs and splashes ahead.
The passageway angles upwards and ends at a crumbling rock wall split by a large crack. The bottom half of the fissure is blocked by piled rocks, but above that it is wide enough for all of them to climb through over the wet rocks. Water pours in from above, splashing down on the rocks, and streaming across the ground and away into the darkness they’ve left behind. The overcast grey sky seen through the hole in the rock wall seems as bright as a sunny day. The tips of tall blades of grass wave gently in a breeze, outside on the slope.
“Can you believe it, friends?” asks Hamfrd, stepping up onto the fallen rocks and facing the group. He roars with pleasure.
“Honestly?” says Mathos. “I thought we were done for. I was mentally preparing for the afterlife.”
Elaine clasps her hands together, jumps with excitement. Leans over and embraces Jake, who pats her warmly on the back.
“Hey,” calls Scarlet from the rear, “those spiders are back.”
The mood changes instantly: Jake and Elaine separate and scramble forward; Hamfrd calls out, urging them on; Mathos reaches up, takes the big man’s hand, and allows himself to be hauled onto the pile of rocks and then pushed up into the crack towards daylight; Jake helps Elaine up beside Hamfrd, turns and draws his sword, ready to face the threat.
Scarlet stands at the edge of the light laughing.
The hustle drains out of everyone. Jake lowers his sword. Elaine and Hamfrd stare, unaccustomed to the rare sound of the fierce woman’s mirth. Mathos is lying up in the crack, half out of the cave, drenched by the falling water.
“Got you, losers,” Scarlet says, smirking. Walking forward, she pats Jake on the chest. “You should see your faces.”
Hamfrd roars a laugh, while Elaine sighs with relief.
Mathos, lying in the crack and being soaked by falling water from above, twists his upper body to shout back into the cave. His eyes are shut against the splashing water. “Is everyone okay?” he calls, wiping desperately at his eyes. “I can’t hear anything except this damn water!” He struggles to slide back into the cave, looking like a fish on land. “Anyone? Hamfrd, are you there? Oh, Gods, are you all dead? Somebody answer me!”
* * *
They make camp on the side of the mountain, some distance below the spot from which they escaped, where water from farther up the slope flows close by. It’s the same stream that runs over the lip of the crack, splashes inside the cave, and which led them outside to safety.
A campfire burns, shrubs and grass gathered by Hamfrd and set ablaze by the mage’s hand. They gather around it now, all of them wet. Mathos and Elaine, the most sodden, sit almost close enough to be singed.
The grey overcast sky has given way to a starless night. The moon is hidden, but its white glow is discernible behind the cloud cover.
It’s quiet and cold on the mountainside. Only the crackle of the flames, and the occasional gust of wind.
Scarlet takes first watch and walks a short distance away, out of the light of the fire. The others curl up close to the flames. Hamfrd tosses another handful of the grass and vine-like brush he’s managed to scrounge together onto the fire. It spits and crackles in response, flaming bright and hot.
In the middle of the night, Scarlet gently wakes the big man, who takes over the watch as the fierce woman stretches out beside the dying fire. Hamfrd keeps the watch until the first hints of morning light are in the sky. He nudges Jake, who mumbles and rolls over, brushing the big man’s hand away. Another nudge later and Jake is climbing unsteadily to his feet, wiping sleep from his eyes. He sits a short distance up the slope and watches the light of day break over the horizon.
The clouds have cleared in the night and the rising sun sits heavy and bloated just above the horizon, a shimmering orange globe, as the companions begin to wake and stir.
Early morning talk concerns their location. The sun and a brief consultation with a map pulled from Mathos’s tube of rolled maps helps determine their location. The tomb of the Sun King is situated underneath a ruined fortress, which is nestled in the chain of mountains called the Gods’ Wall. The companions entered through the ruined fortress, finding it overrun by goblins and filled with still-functioning traps. Fighting their way through those obstacles, they made it down into the tomb, where they found the Sun King himself, only to have their prize — the Sun King’s crown — snatched away. The underground caverns they escaped into while fleeing the collapse of the Hall of Ancestors, must have led them deeper into the heart of the mountains and clear through to the other side.
“Which means we’re likely on the back side of this peak,” Jake says, jabbing at the parchment map as it ripples in the morning wind. “So all we have to do is work our way back around to the northern slope and then down.”
Hamfrd’s stomach growls noisily.
“Don’t worry,” Jake says, pointing to the big man’s gut. “By tonight we’ll be in Thistledown. Tomorrow Anchorage.”
“And then back home to Gulfside,” says Elaine, setting back on her bottom.
“Yeah,” growls Scarlet. “Without the crown.”
“Without the crown,” Jake agrees tightly.
“I’m gonna punch Harriet Swordsteel so hard in the mouth when I see her,” says Scarlet, “she’ll be spitting teeth.”
“Spitting teeth . . .” Jake prompts, waiting. After a pause, he frowns. “Oh, sorry. I thought there was going to be more to that.”
“No. That’s it. I’ll punch her. Knock her teeth out.”
“Well, count me in,” says Jake, grinning overly wide because Scarlet is violently angry and it might pacify her somewhat.
“I don’t need your help,” she snarls.
“Count me in . . . cheering you on,” Jake amends, “is what I was going to say,” and he raises his hand as though he’s waving a little flag. “Yay.”
Scarlet growls and smashes a fist into her open hand, and stalks off.
Jake turns to the others. “So, anybody else have any big plans once we’re back home?”
* * *
As Jake predicted, they reach the small walled town of Thistledown late in the day, an hour after the sun has sunk below the shoulder of the Gods’ Wall in the west. They left this same town early the morning before last to climb to the ruined fortress, which sits somewhere out of sight on the slopes above and behind them.
Scarlet walks ahead, moving with purpose, muscles tensed like vipers ready to strike out. There is a slight chance, one which they discussed as they wound their way down from the heights, that Harriet Swordsteel and the other Darkblades might still in the town of Thistledown. Assuming they escaped the collapse of the Sun King’s tomb (“They did,” growls Scarlet), they would have likely come down the mountain the previous evening, while the companions were escaping through the caverns. They would have presumably spent the night somewhere in Thistledown.
The answer comes immediately, in the first of the town’s inns that they enter.
“Oh, yeah,” says the fat, straw-haired barkeep. “Those folks you’re describin’ was here all right. But they left first thing this morning.”
“Damn it,” growls Scarlet, banging a fist on the bartop, rattling drinks and plates along its length. A few grumpy faces turn her way, but seeing the woman’s fearsome expression, they promptly look away again, eyes downcast. “They’ll be on a ship back to Gulfside by now.”
“Hey, at least we know. Now we don’t have to waste our time going inn to inn searching after them,” Jake tells her.
She stares at him.
“Look, we know where they’re headed. We’ll find them back in Gulfside, Scar.” Her nostrils flare. “There’s no way we can catch up to them before then, so let’s just get another night of rest. Tomorrow we head home.”
“Come,” says Hamfrd, stepping to the bar. “Let us drink. You’ll feel better after a cup.”
Scarlet turns her glare from Jake to Hamfrd. At last, something within her relents as she stares at the big man. “A cup?” she asks, face softening to a scowl. She tells the barkeep her drink. “Bring a bottle,” she snaps.
At her side, Hamfrd laughs. “That’s the spirit!” He raises a pair of fingers towards the barkeep. “Two bottles.” He grins wide. “And food. Lots of it!”
* * *
The companions spend the next couple of hours unwinding in the lonely common room of the inn, which is called The Hills of Grade. For Jake, Hamfrd, and Scarlet this involves imbibing large quantities of alcoholic drinks. Normally content with simple ales, in the spirit of camaraderie Jake downs several shots of the shudder-inducing Northern spirit called visckr, which both Hamfrd and Scarlet consume like water. He is soon far drunker than he intended to be.
Only a few locals populate the gloomy room besides the companions. A fire burns in the stone hearth, but it’s small and mostly ineffectual. Candles spread around the room, on the bar and the tables and along the window ledges, provide the bulk of what light there is, flickering and wan.
Hamfrd is regaling the seated patrons at the bar with tales of previous exploits — presently Jake listens to him telling the story of the Winterbear, a tale Hamfrd tells so often that Jake has memorized large chunks of the big man’s version of events verbatim. Scarlet lounges at Hamfrd’s side, her face still dark, but no more so than usual, the swordarm figures. She notices him staring and scowls.
Mathos has already turned in, citing a need for further rest, and Jake thinks back to the collapse of the Hall of Ancestors and the invisible shield that the mage threw up, saving them all from being crushed and providing enough time to discover the secret passage beneath the throne and escape into the caverns below. It seems it took more out of the mage then he let on at the time, and Jake finds himself with an even greater respect for his friend and his ability that he continued on without complaint afterwards.
Jake pushes away from the bar, swaying slightly, and staggers across the rickety wooden floor towards Elaine. The cleric asked only for steaming water to make tea, and she has been sitting alone at a table beneath one of the inn’s windows by herself, sipping her drink.
She’s been in a mood, Jake thinks, since she noticed the name of the inn.
The Hills of Grade.
Jake is no devout worshipper, but he is familiar enough with the general axioms of the Allway to know that according to the Doctrine of the Temple, it’s not considered proper to mention the individual Gods and Goddesses who make up the Allway — of which Grade is one — by name. The Allway is a collective, something like a pantheon within the wider pantheon of divine beings, and the Temple frowns on taking the individual deities out of that context, where they are arranged in a specific hierarchy that is codified and well-documented and Temple-approved. The Allway is seen by its clerics, priests, and worshippers as a singular entity, the Many As One. To name an individual deity belonging to the Allway out of context is crude.
In addition, there are many other divine beings outside of the Allway, who are considered by the Temple to be, at best, lesser; some of those others, whose aims and natures conflict radically with that of the Allway, are seen by the Temple as evil. Therefore, speaking of or especially swearing to the wider Gods is seen by the followers of the Allway as blasphemous and no cleric would ever casually do so.
Thus, Jake considers, Gods’ Wall, the popular colloquial name of the looming mountain range just to their south, to a cleric of the Allway such as Elaine, is actually offensive. To be sitting within an establishment that names one of the individual deities of the Allway would then be a further pinprick of disrespect to her faith.
Of course, both practices are quite common among the general population, even among those who claim belief in the Allway. Such minor slights such as swearing to the wider Gods literally surround the cleric on the daily, even from Jake’s own mouth at times, so it seems unlikely to him that Elaine’s current gloomy mood can be explained thusly.
He stands and considers on wobbly legs.
“Jake, are you alright?” asks the young cleric, looking up from her seat. “You’ve been standing there just sort of staring for like three minutes.”
“Hmm? I’m fine,” he mumbles. “Just thinking.”
He slides into the chair across from her. Misjudges slightly and rattles the table.
“So . . . why so glum, chum?” he asks.
Elaine looks away, frowning, and then sighs. “I think Scarlet hates me.” Jake opens his mouth, but the cleric continues: “I mean, she essentially said as much to my face. Or didn’t say, rather. You know how she doesn’t talk much. And then the thing with the spiders.” Elaine lowers her voice, leans in. “She gave me a look.”
“Are you talking about you not killing that giant spider while it was stuck in that hole? Elaine,” he says, “you saved us twice yesterday. Don’t forget that. Scarlet won’t. Nor will the others. And so you have principles. You’re a cleric of the Allway. You and she are just two very different people. Very different.” The tone of his emphasis causes Elaine to frown slightly. “Besides. Scarlet hates everybody.”
“No she doesn’t,” Elaine insists. “She doesn’t hate you. She doesn’t hate Hamfrd.”
Jake laughs. “Oh yeah? Watch this.” He turns in his seat, scraping the legs of the chair on the floor. Shouts across the room to Scarlet, who is leaning back languidly with her elbows against the bar. “Scarlet!” He waits for her eyes to find him. “I love you, Scarlet Song!”
“Say that again,” she calls back, scowling, “and I’ll come over there and stab you in the throat.”
“That doesn’t prove anything,” says Elaine when Jake turns back, but now a small smile tugs at the corners of her mouth. “I’m pretty sure that’s how she shows affection.”
“Exactly,” Jake says, trying to sip from an empty mug. “So checkmate to your argument.” He holds the mug up, tips it and looks inside.
Elaine sighs again. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Of course I am.”
“I guess she still intimidates me is all.”
“You’ve been with us for two months, Elaine. I’ve known Scarlet for years and she still intimidates me.”
The cleric’s smile grows and becomes a warm laugh.
“Thank you, Jake.”
“No sweat.” He leans close, and she can smell the alcohol on his breath and suddenly realizes the swordarm is quite drunk. “So,” he says, grinning stupidly, “ready to make out now?”
“Seriously?” Her annoyance is mostly feigned. Mostly. “You’re such a child,” she sighs, shaking her head. She raises a warning finger between them. “Another inch closer and I’ll fetch Scarlet over here.”
“Ooh,” Jake murmurs, “threesome.”
And then his head drops to the table with a thump.
* * *
Elaine is eating a breakfast plate of eggs and potatoes at the bar when Jake comes stumbling down the stairs and joins her. He mumbles a polite greeting, which she returns, and then staggers onto the neighboring stool.
“I didn’t embarrass myself last night, did I?” Jake is holding a hand to his head, squinting against the meager light coming through the common room’s few windows. “I might have had too much to drink.”
Elaine keeps her face neutral, but inside she’s sniggering. “Hmm? Were you drunk? I couldn’t even tell.”
“No? Good,” says Jake, relieved. “Sometimes I make a fool of myself.”
“No,” Elaine says, shaking her head. “I don’t remember any fool-making.” Smiling to herself, she continues eating.
Scarlet joins them soon after, pulling up a stool. She winces as the legs scrape on the wooden floor. After she’s seated and orders a strong brewed coffee, she sits in silence. When the coffee arrives, she stares darkly into the mug.
As Elaine finishes her breakfast and slides the plate away across the bar, Scarlet winces again. “Why is it so loud in here?” the fierce woman grumbles.
Elaine and Jake share a look.
Mathos, comes bounding down the stairs next, his footsteps earning a gloomy scowl from Scarlet. He appears fresh and alert.
“You look well rested,” Elaine tells him.
“I feel it, too,” Mathos says. “It’s good sometimes to reach the limits of what we’re capable of. I feel better than I have in months. Years maybe. I’m ready to magic the hell out of something.” He rubs his hands together excitedly. “Sometimes I forget how much of a thrill it all is, adventuring. Good friends at your side. Danger at every turn. Never more alive than when you’re confronting death and all that.”
Growling, Scarlet glares at the mage. “Want to confront death? You get ten more words before I start cramming them back in your mouth with my fist.”
“Well, good morning to you too, Scarlet,” he says, smiling wide.
She shows her teeth menacingly.
“But you can’t–”
She turns in her stool, cracks the knuckles of one hand by forming it into a tight fist.
“Shutting up now,” the mage says, plopping down onto a stool beside Elaine. Still, he’s only slightly deflated. Eyeing Scarlet warily, he captures the barkeep’s attention and orders a breakfast by pointing at Elaine’s empty plate and then his mouth, and then holding up a finger to indicate ‘one’. The barkeep gives him a patronizing thumbs up in reply, which Mathos interprets as entirely earnest.
After a long enough silence passes for Scarlet’s mood to ease back down to merely extremely grumpy, Jake says, “Still no Hamfrd? I can’t believe he’s slept later than all of us. He must have really overdone it last night.”
Scarlet makes a noise that might be agreement or just misery.
“What are you talking about?” Elaine asks, sipping her tea. “Hamfrd was up just after me.”
“What?” Jake rubs his face, trying to parse. His head aches. “Then where is he?”
The cleric jerks a thumb towards the common room’s main entrance. “He said it was such a beautiful morning, he was going to get an hour or two of exercise in before the rest of you woke.”
“Wow,” says Mathos, shaking his head in wonder. “That guy is so dedicated.”
“Insane, I think you mean,” says Jake, face sagging. He returns to staring down into the mug of water he’s been nursing.
Several minutes later, when Hamfrd bursts through the door grinning wide, Jake groans and squints his eyes against the daylight silhouetting the big man in the doorway. Scarlet mutters something under her breath and grips her cup of coffee protectively.
“Friends,” the big man bellows, “you’re all up!” He breathes in deeply and exhales a laugh. “What a glorious day to be alive! Come, onwards to Gulfside!”