Rune suddenly started struggling, pushing frantically against my arms. After a moment's hesitation I released her, and she fell to her hands and knees and started scrambling away, leaving me to mourn the lost comfort. She barely made it a scant few feet before the sound and sensation of harsh, fruitless retching reached me. The sensation of her stomach seemingly doing its best to evert itself was actually pretty new to me, and made me pause for a moment.
It took me until after I'd pushed myself to my feet to recognize what I'd been feeling from Rune before the nausea took over. It'd been a while since I'd last felt it myself, but I was pretty sure that the dull ache that had been emanating from her gut was hunger.
… In my defense, while Aria was constantly hungry, hunger felt different for her, probably because her body was as far from human anatomy as possible without being, I don't know, silicon-based or something.
I was getting off track.
I moved to kneel beside Rune and placed a hand on her shoulder, only to feel a little hurt when she flinched away from my touch. With a sigh, I settled for waiting until she was done dry-heaving before I— oh, she's done. But now she was shivering.
"Are you okay, now?" I asked. She stiffened, then turned her head to give me a teary-eyed glare. "Alright, alright, sorry," I said, holding up my hands in a calming gesture.
Rune opened her mouth angrily. "What the actual fuck is w-"
A sudden tremor interrupted her, with a loud boom from deeper into the tunnels hot on its heels. Shards of stone fell from the ceiling, and before I could think about what was happening I threw myself over my Rune, just in time to catch something sharp with my back.
Once the rain of debris had ceased and I was certain nothing more was going to fall down on us I pushed myself up off of her very still form. I extended a light and an eye out on a tendril, which I turned to look at my back.
Oh. So that's why it felt weird.
I twisted around, trying and failing to reach the stalactite embedded in my bare flesh. My motions must have attracted Rune's attention, because she pushed herself upright and turned to look at me, giving me another angle from which to view the stone spike in me.
"Well?" I asked after a few moments of her staring. "Are you going to help me with this or what?"
Haltingly, her hand rose towards me, only to hesitate partway. With an exasperated sigh I reached over with the tendril to shove the stalactite through.
She yelped and recoiled, which I ignored in favor of sealing up the wound behind it. Or rather, trying to, since the skin surrounding the hole in my back was thoroughly crushed and wasn't responding to my efforts. I'd have to cut that bruise out in order to heal, it seemed, but that would probably have to wait. In the meantime…
I withdrew the tendril and returned my eye and light to their prior positions before standing and turning to Rune. "Alright, come on," I said, holding out a hand to help her to her feet. When she didn't move I rolled my lights and eyes and made her extend a hand so I could pull her up.
"Wh-where are we going?" she asked in a trembling voice. I looked her in the face, and… well, quite frankly, she looked rather close to tears. Maybe the stress was getting to her?
"We're gonna go see what that noise was, of course!"
She started to protest, but I just grabbed her wrist and started off down the tunnel, tugging her along behind me.
Four more times the tremors and booms resounded through the tunnels, none as strong or loud as the first. That fourth time, though, brought about more change than all the others before it.
Lighting had flickered to life near the edges of the high ceiling. Lighting that was clearly artificial in nature, but not in any way that I was familiar with. Pencil-thin lines of bright, sickly green light hung in the air in loosely coiled quadruple helixes with no apparent source, segments spinning lazily in alternating directions and separated by odd, glyph-like designs formed of the same light. In a few places the lines passed through stalactites to no apparent effect.
I let my lights fade into nothing, absorbing them as I looked around. The glow given off by the lines was more than enough to illuminate the room we'd found ourselves in. And it was a room, or maybe a hub, but not a cave. For one, there were the lights, of course, but for another, it was almost perfectly octagonal and the walls were smooth enough to reflect the light. Each of the walls had an opening in it, including the one Rune and I had entered from, that made me think doorway, despite the fact that each was easily fifteen feet tall or more, maybe nine or so wide, and had no door to speak of. Half of the doorways led to long, now-lit hallways, while one of the others was sealed with columns of black stone. The remainder opened into rooms bigger than this one that were… lined with massive cubicles, but round, I guess?
Another tremor made me look up at the ceiling, because more stalactites falling twenty feet onto Rune wouldn't be healthy for her. Thankfully, the stalactite population in this hub area was far sparser than it'd been in the tunnel we'd slept in, and most had grown long enough to meet with the stalagmites below them.
Shaking my head, I started off towards the tunnel opposite the one we'd come from, only to stop when Rune remained still. "Come on, this way," I said, looking over my shoulder at her.
The girl had cringed away from the sound of the latest blast, but now was staring around, wide eyes full of wonder. "What… what is this place?" she breathed.
I shrugged. "Couldn't say." Though I do wonder the same thing.
"This is fucking ancient," she said, though it sounded like she wasn't talking to me as much as she was to herself. "'S gotta be, to have all these stalag-things, right?" I didn't answer, but she continued on, anyway. "It's been down here all this time, beneath the city, and nobody noticed?"
She started moving away, my grip on her wrist having lessened from "slightly painful" to light enough for it to slip from my fingers. I let myself be contented with the discomfort of the forming bruises she gingerly rubbed. Hesitant steps through the thin layer of black dust on the ground took her to the sealed doorway, and she laid her hand on one of the columns blocking it. Through her, the stone felt so smooth I would almost call it slippery, were it not so very dry.
Suddenly, I felt her power flex, and the column shuddered. "Um, what're you doing?"
"Trying to get past this, see what's inside. Duh." She didn't look up from her work, but I could still feel her eyes roll.
"And what if it's sealed for a reason? Like, maybe there's something dangerous behind there just waiting to rip your face off? I don't want to have to rush you to Panacea again so soon."
Rune's free hand clenched, then relaxed. "I just want… no, I need to see what's there. And yes, I know, curiosity killed the cat and all that."
"... But satisfaction brought it back," I said with a sigh.
She turned to give a look that I could only really "see" by feeling those muscles flex, thanks to her mask. "What?"
"That's how the rest of the quote goes."
"You're fucking with me."
I shook my head with a grin, and her eyes slipped to my teeth, so very unlike hers, before hastily snapping away. "Nope. There's a lot of sayings like that, that're positive and all but have gotten butchered down into ones that promote conformity." At least, that's what I remembered of what Mom had told me on the subject.
The odd feeling of lungs stretched wide around a deep breath, then allowed to relax. "H'okay. Whatever." Rune flexed her power again, with the impressive result of making the column maybe wiggle slightly, and she growled under her breath. "Fucker doesn't want to come free."
"Maybe you're pushing or pulling the wrong way?"
She didn't respond, but I felt her use her powers a couple more times, before finally her efforts were rewarded. The grinding of stone against stone deep beneath our feet rumbled through Rune's bones as the column eased its way into the ground. Air puffed out of the room, disturbed by the column's descent, right into Rune's face, carrying with it the cloying stench of an eons-old corpse.
As she staggered away, hacking her lungs up and gulping down great breaths of the relatively fresher cave air, I absorbed my nose into the rest of Aria's flesh and stepped closer to the gap to peer within. There was light, yes, but much less than was in the hub. A closer look revealed why.
The interior, which had probably differed in layout from the other rooms, was utterly trashed. Great, arcing scars marred the walls. Tall pedestals ringed with claw-like bits of stone lined the edges of the oblong room, each damaged in some way, and some even shattered until naught but tooth-like lumps remained. The ones with the least damage had fingers of lightning, the same sickly green as the lights, arcing fitfully from the claws to play across silvery, long-cornered cubes perched atop the pedestals. The actual lighting in the room had many segments simply missing, and what there was shone off corroded bits of metal that littered the ground. And in the center of all lay what I could only assume had caused the destruction.
It was huge, of a size comparable to Aria's full body, though not quite as massive. Even so, its bulk dominated the room, taller than me even though it lay on its side. Its worm-like, dessicated, almost cancerous-looking body lay contorted atop the rubble, tumorous bulges in its flesh casting odd shadows. Long, wispy, and tattered streamers of flesh splayed out from seemingly random places on the body, as did a handful of knobbly, sticklike limbs with too many joints.
I was pretty sure it was dead. Pretty sure. Even if I couldn't see why it might have died from where I was.
My thoughtful, "Huh," drew Rune's attention, and she pinched her nose shut before venturing towards the opening. I stepped back to allow her room.
She stared in for a good few moments, before letting out a rather nasal, "Jesus."
I let her stare for a little while more, before eventually asking, "Is your curiosity satisfied?"
Her eyes flicked to me, giving me a good idea of how odd my current face looked without a nose. I backed away a bit more and reformed it. "Kinda?" she said, waggling her free hand a little. "I just, I wonder what it could be. I've never—"
Another rumble and crash made her jump, interrupting what she'd been saying. "Fuck! What even is that? Are they fighting a war up there or something?"
"If I had to guess, I'd say someone is making another entrance."
She blinked, then started towards the tunnel that the noises had been coming from without a word. I shook my head and joined her, what I'd just seen and what might be waiting for us ahead warring for a place at the fore of my thoughts.