Shiba led the group down the dank Ortion Cavern silently. They avoided glancing at their eerie surroundings. The water that plipped to the ground frequently made for an unsettling background noise that sounded like the native batlike monsters. They soon came to a familiar place, on that Luke recognized as the location of the replica ogres that had fought to activate a fontech canon to free the cheagles. He shuddered at the memory, but pressed on doggedly.
"Here we are," Shiba pronounced, letting the pick slip down his shoulder and into his grasp. The reflective stone before his glittered in the half-light pouring from the opening that had been raggedly blasted in the stone. Hot desert air drifted in, and it was soothingly warm after the coolness of the damp cave. However, Shiba didn't stop. He raised the pick and swung it down to the stone. It shattered under three mighty blows, the fragments of mirrorstone going in all directions.
"Wow!" Luke said a little too loudly. Jade hushed him with a swift "shhh", and Tear gave him a reproving glare. He grinned sheepishly. Guy nodded to the opening.
"So, what do we do? Follow you around the whole way?"
"No, it'll cost ya."
"Whaaaat?!" Anise drawled incredulously. "All our hard-earned gald to have you crack some rock for us?!"
"Sorry," he replied, using his towel to wipe the perspiration from his brow. "This stuff is costly to dig through."
"Hardly fair," Jade added., "But if there really is replication going on here, we must investigate. There's no telling what Van could be plotting."
"Yeah." Luke nodded.
"So we're going in," Tear confirmed. "Just how long should this take? Wouldn't we be better off restocking first?"
"'Pologies, miss," Shiba continued. "I'm not heading back now. I've all ready signed the contract to be here at these hours."
"Contract?" Luke blinked. "You have a contract to dig through mirrorstone?"
"Of course." The man laughed. "Like I said, this stuff is a valuable resource. We can't just let anyone hack away at it."
"Correct." Jade fixed his glasses petulantly. "Now, shall we proceed?"
"Right," Shiba said. He led them into the even darker cave that he had dug for them.
Inside, it took a moment for Luke to let his eyes get adjusted to the dark. He could see the monsters that lived there were dark-fleshed, alerted and curious to the unexpected visitors. Their skin was streaked with green, and their primitive clublike weapons were clutched as if they were their only hope to survive in the cave.
More heaps of the glinting goldish material stone lined the walls, and Luke could see that they only had about four choices of direction. His gaze drifted from one end of the wall to the other slowly.
"Luke!" Tear grabbed his arm and pulled him back. One of the impish beasts swung its club at him, narrowly missing his shin. Luke yelped in surprise. Shiba faced the monster, wielding his pick, and another other of the beasts tottered up. The second one was much larger, and it carried a longer club. Shiba swung vainly, and the bigger monster swept him aside. Luckily, Jade was one step ahead.
Water crashed down from above, flooring the monster with a groan. It flapped its sodden arms helplessly, and the more nimble of the two advanced on Guy. He gave a slight grunt more of being inconvenienced than in surprise, and his blade had took its head from its shoulders in a split second.
Both black-furred monsters disappeared in a blast of fonons. Luke stood, puzzled, Tear's hand still on his shoulder.
"Your reaction time could use some work," she criticized.
"Don't worry, Luke," Guy said, helping Shiba to his feet. "Are you okay?"
"Y-Yeah, I'm fine," he stuttered, shaken but unharmed. "We'll have to be more careful from now on."
"We would have been fine had a certain someone not invited other monsters to our good selves." Jade added dryly. "But, moving on..."
Luke bristled indignantly. "I'm sorry, jeez, are you happy now? I'll be more careful from now on."
"Good boy," Jade said mockingly, as if the noble were his pet rappig.
Tear sighed. Luke interpreted it as a sign for him to keep his mouth shut and let the colonel win, as was going to happen anyway. He shrugged, then turned to the rest of the group.
"So, where should we head first?"
"Right!" Anise exclaimed
"Left!" Guy told him.
Luke shook his head. "Let's go left. We should keep to the left wall and then we'll always know the way back, okay Anise?"
"My, my, quite the strategist, are we?" Jade adjusted his glasses matter-of-factly. "Ah, the days of youth...Where one's sharp mind can outrun the wisest of men."
Shiba looked terribly confused, and Luke simply took it upon himself to blow off the older man. He turned resolutely. "Left it is, then."
Shiba trotted over to the mound of stone, the others following closely so as to make sure there were no more imps patrolling the area. The next room was nearly identical to the first.
"Hey, weren't we just here?" Anise asked on first impulse.
"No, we were in that room." Jade pointed nonchalantly. Anise glanced back and shrugged. "Well, I can see us getting lost here fast. I'll make a map."
She fetched a slip of paper and a pen from the traveling bag and documented their movement and the locations of the doors as they went. Door after door was passed, each opened at the expense of a sizable hunk of gald that made Anise want to pull her hair out. And what's more, but every room was so similar, they had no clue as to where they would end up.
"Hey, what's that?" Luke stopped short suddenly, and the others did too, upon seeing at what he was pointing. After the nonstop walking, the halt was a relief to all.
"It's a lake!" Mieu chirped. The cheagle toddled over to the water's edge and peered into it. "This is strange water! I can't see my reflection!"
Tear stepped forward to the monster. "That may be because of the poor lighting in here. Come away before you fall in, Mieu."
"Do you know anything about it, Jade?" Luke asked, turning to the colonel.
"I'm afraid not. My knowledge on biological habitats is rather limited." Jade shrugged modestly. "I suggest we go back the way we came; there are no more exits this way."
"You mean we wasted our money by coming this way?!" Anise moaned.
"I suppose so," Guy added. "We'll just have to find another path, then."
Tear looked back down to the cheagle at her side. "Are you ready to--" She spun, facing the water urgently. "Mieu?!" He was gone, the opaque water's surface rippling slightly.
"Hey!" Luke dashed to the lake, kneeling. "Mieu! Did anyone see what happened to him?"
"He was taken by a monster," Jade stated. "You all were too busy chatting to notice."
"Why didn't you say anything?!"
"Oh, I'm sorry." Jade coughed. "I thought he was getting on everyone's nerves."
Luke rolled his eyes. "I don't believe this!"
"Aren't you going to rescue him?"
Luke paused, glaring at Jade. He looked back down to the water's quivering surface, then he proceeded to remove his jacket. "You're a pain, you know that?!" He tossed the white cloth to Tear, who directed her attention down at the moist ground, hoping the others couldn't see her blushing. Luke handed her his black undershirt, then gulped, slipping down into the water.
Anise giggled, and Natalia made a point to keep him out of her line of sight. Guy's face was grim, but Jade was thoroughly pleased with himself.
The water turned out to be only chest-high. It seemed exceedingly viscous, and Luke concluded that the heavy atmosphere of the cave had to have something to do with it. He stepped forward cautiously, trying to feel for a disturbance in the water more than scanning the impenetrable surface.
"Any luck?" Jade asked casually.
"Oh, shut it."
He probed the mud underneath to the best of his ability. There seemed to be nothing in the water, and the search was quickly proving to be fruitless. After several minutes, he considered calling it off and climbing out. "I don't think I can--"
Luke fell back as a slash of white spray crossed his vision. He covered his face instinctively, dropping back and trying to reach for his blade. It took him a moment to realize that it was not there, having left it with Tear when he'd taken off his jacket and shirt. He shook the water from his eyes, then carefully observed the ripples that were now gently tapping the walls of the pit. He advanced to where he thought the source of the splash to be.
Suddenly, a long, powerful tentacle wrapped itself around his right leg, and Luke cried out. He rested a hand on the grassy bank, regaining his footing, but the barbed suckers on the slimy limb tore flesh from sinew in an instant. He screamed again, and Tear ran to his side.
"What's wrong? Is something down there? Let me heal you!" She didn't wait for a reply to begin her healing spell.
"Augh! What the hell?!" Luke gasped, kicking furiously. "Get it off!" He made a feeble attempt to lift himself from the water, but the response from the monster was a harder tug that sent him under.
"Luke!" Guy threw his shirt off, too, and dove in without a second thought. He located Luke in no time, and he took a breath before ducking down to see what was going on.
Underwater was no clearer than above. He could only make out dark blurs, but he could see the one that was apparently whatever had Luke. It moved jerkily, dragging the flailing noble to its den.
Guy broke the surface again. He shook his head, getting as much of the water from his hair as he could. The others bombarded him with questions.
"What's going on?"
"Is he going to be all right?"
Guy panted heavily. To his relief, Jade cut off the stream of questions. "Let him breathe, at least."
Guy nodded, then deemed himself able to talk, albeit still choking quite a bit. "It's some kind of huge monster. I have to go back down and save Luke!" He took another ragged breath of air, then went back down to search for any signs of motion.
The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was a black smear whirling in front of him, and he reached for his blade. After a moment, he realized that it was blood—Luke's blood. He clutched his sword, and even though he knew it would be useless underwater, he held it forward in case the monster suddenly lost interest in Luke and came at him for some reason.
Guy felt something solid thump on his shin, and he opened his mouth in surprise, which did nothing but rob him of the remainder of his air. He squinted against the smothering darkness, reluctantly resurfacing instead of delving deeper. He was up only long enough to get more air, then went down again. Every second he was up was one more Luke was down, and he was sure the boy was unconscious by now, if he was even that lucky.
This time he felt something grab his leg, and he almost kicked it off before realizing it was Luke. He bent down, grasping Luke's shoulders, and pulled, but the other boy winced. He stopped, perplexed, then grappled his way down the wall cautiously. It was still attached. He tried his hardest to see the beast that held his friend, but nothing but more and more liquid obsidian could be detected. With a blind thrust of his sword, he felt the monster jerk, and out of the corner of his eye, Guy saw Luke finally break free of the monster's hold and swim like mad to the surface.
In mere milliseconds, the monster's remaining arms flew around Guy's head and shoulders. He struggled fiercely, and it pulled him in closer to its jaws. Guy paused for a minute, knowing that he only had time for one more move before his air-deprived torpor would restrict any motion whatsoever, then he waited for just the right time to strike.
He judged the anatomy of the monster well. A single fierce kick scored the monster's eye, and it loosed a chilling wail as its tentacles slackened. Guy dragged himself up as quickly as he could by way of the wall, and he could feel the wake of the water behind him when the beast propelled its bulk after him.
Above the water, Luke had been hauled up by Tear and Natalia, who were healing him intensely. Anise hovered worriedly, muttering about not being able to do anything for him. Guy emerged with an explosion of froth on the water's surface, and he grasped for the stubby mosses and grasses that covered the poor soil of the cave. He almost had his elbows up when the worst thing that could have happened did.
Tear spun and grabbed his arm.
Guy let go with a shriek and dropped back into the water. The monster below could be seen by the others, its multiple tentacles jolting to Guy's legs. He could hardly get another breath of air before he was dragged down by the ankles by the powerful monster again. He was astonished at the speed at which it pulled him, and his ears popped violently as it went deeper and deeper. Frantic, the blond reached for the gripping tentacles that wound themselves about his feet. He tore at the beast, but his hands slipped off instantly. He cast a worried glance up to the surface. Luke would probably endanger himself going after him. He wished that he could get out himself without the noble coming back for him.
Startled, Guy felt his knee hit the bottom of the lake. It came faster than he had expected, and he was relieved to have something familiar near him. Earth. He dug his feet into the sand, but the monster kept pulling. It was in its element, at an advantage, and he was helpless, even with the newfound aid of the ground. He bent to brace his hands against it as well, but he touched something cold and slick, which, surprisingly, was not part of the monster.
He grabbed the round object, thinking that perhaps it was his lost sword. Anything would help in this situation, and he knew it wouldn't be long before Luke got past the girls and dove in after him. To his dismay, he realized the the metal was not part of his weapon, but a ring, too large to fit around any normal finger. He flicked it over his wrist so that he didn't lose it. Another tug. Five seconds lost. His air wouldn't last much longer.
By some freak law of nature, he didn't feel out of breath any more. He started at the sudden turn of events, feeling empowered. Guy tightened his hold on the ground, and the monster advanced in response. It rushed him, beating its broad fins against the water. Wait—fins? Guy pushed himself from the sand, and he realized that he could make out more detail in the monster. Its thick body was adorned with three giant fins, one on each side and one dorsal. Its six tentacles whipped around wildly, the other three still grasping his legs. Its mouth gaped, and he could see ten score two-inch fangs glistening against the luminescent splotches of flesh that bordered its mouth. He tried again to wrench its solid hold from his ankles, and this time he was able to lift the slick mass of flesh—just a tiny bit. He never thought he'd want his sword so badly as he did then—if only he could get a blade under it, he would be home free.
He heard a muffled burst above, and he saw another body plunge through the water. Luke. He signaled to him, and the redhead held himself steady on the wall. Guy reached up, and Luke grabbed his hand. When he started to pull him back up, Guy shook his head and pointed to the aquatic menace below. Luke frowned, then he guided himself down by the wall. Luckily, he had taken his sword, and he wasted no time severing the tentacle. Dark blood curled through the liquid, and Guy thought he could almost see the red tinge to it. Luke's blood had appeared completely black last time.
He wanted to sigh in happy relief, but he knew it wasn't over until he was on dry land. Behind them, the deranged fish squealed, and it wriggled up through the water, faster and faster up to him. Guy kicked out instinctively, and he clawed his way up the wall to safety.
Luke broke first. He hurled himself from the water, gasping. Tear and Natalia lunged back as water sprayed everywhere. Luke spun and pulled Guy up behind him before any women could offer their assistance.
Guy shook his head. He inhaled deeply, dizzy from traveling from the top of the lake to the bottom and back again in under ten minutes. He leaned down, coughing, and he caught the first glimpse of the ring on his arm that he had since putting it on. The gold and black metal flickered briefly in the light of the softly glowing mushrooms that ringed the base of the stone wall of the cavern.
"Had fun on your little diving adventure?" Jade asked curiously.
Guy and Luke chose to ignore the comment, instead listening to the healers. "Guy, you're hurt. Shall I heal you?" Tear kept her distance respectfully.
"Hold on a minute." Guy sprawled in the damp grass that had been made wetter with the water seeping from his clothes.
"Ooooh, Luke, I was so worried about you!" Anise cooed. "Are you sure you're okay?"
Luke touched the half-scabbed streak of slashes that ran down his right leg. "It'll heal. But what about Guy?"
Guy lay on his back, the true extent of his injuries making itself visible. Without so much as the protection of a shirt, the gashes the monster had left on the upper half of his torso were severe. So preoccupied with even breathing as he was, he only realized how painful they were until he was out of the water. He finally found the strength to cough out an answer. "Sure, go ahead."
Natalia and Tear remained a few feet away to reduce the stress that close proximity to the ex-noble would cause. They healed him slowly and carefully, from his legs up to his shoulders.
"Well, any sign of our furred friend down there?" Jade grinned.
Luke and Guy exchanged worried gazes at the reminder of their original task at hand. Guy shook his head regretfully and arched an eyebrow at Luke. "You saw him...right?"
Guy let his head slump back, and he stared at the stalactite-heavy ceiling. "Nope." He raised his left arm above his face so he could examine the Sorcerer's Ring more closely. It dripped with the unusual water mixed with the blood of two men, a fish, and a cheagle.