The Underwrath Incident

rating: +6

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rating: +6+x

“I think we’re deep enough in. Hit the lights, folks!”

A cascade of green light came to life, drowning the darkness blanketing the jagged stone walls around the expeditionary team. Their forms and features illuminated by the strange lanterns of luminescent moss they carried, these four were very clearly inhuman. They were barely half the height of your typical human, their eyes giant blue pools with patterns of slits and dots for pupils, their ears massive and pointed drooping off the sides of their rounded faces, their skin a tough hide colored deep blue-green in some places, and a coat of scale-like plates of iron in others. These cavers were Aonar Tíre, right at home in their natural element.

“Keddug, for the love of the Architects, put your damn helmet on already.” One of the Aonar Tíre, a skinny and sheepish bald man dressed in nothing but baggy canvas pants and some protective boots and gloves, very nearly whined as his colleague gave him an order. “Don’t give me that bugshit, Keddug. I don’t care if it hurts your ears to wear it, you signed up for this so you’re following protocol.”

Another caver spoke up, this one a broad-shouldered and lethargic woman with a similar outfit to Keddug’s, save for a buttonless blue vest and a hulking burlap backpack larger than herself. “Cheer up Keddy. Here, heads up.” Procured from the side of her tremendous pack, the girl tossed a simple, wide-brimmed steel helmet – just like the ones she and the others wore – right into Keddug’s fumbling arms. “Crykz is just making sure you’re safe and all that.”

“Thanks Munx.” Crykz, the order-giving Aonar Tíre, was dressed almost identically to Munx, his vest a dull red and his physique somewhat husky. His attention had already migrated from Keddug’s complaints and was instead focused on the tunnel’s winding path ahead of them: craggy, narrow, unwelcoming, and pitch-black save for the few feet’s worth of green mosslight the cavers had with them. “Right, down to business. Pass Pylr the bundle with the measurement equipment. It’s only another 150 or so meters until we reach virgin passage.”

Munx pulled the tremendous sack from her back and began rifling through its contents, methodically searching through as if she knew it front and back until she quickly procured a small cloth bundle and a large writing board. As she wrestled it loose from inside the backpack, the fourth and final Aonar Tíre’s voice crept up from behind her. “Thank you kindly, I’ll take those from there.” A faint shudder rose from the items Munx held as they sprang loose from her grasp and danced through the air around her head and towards Pylr, short even for one of his species and dressed in spotless bright gray robes that complimented his stark-white greasy mess of a hairdo, the only distinctive part of his attire being a vibrant purple patch just below his collar decorated with two winding black spirals. As one of his hands twisted and fumbled as if fidgeting with an invisible web, the hovering bundle came undone to reveal a handful of small, strange measuring devices, along with an ink pen and a massive sheaf of blank papers which quickly sat themselves down on the writing board stationed aloft in the air just before the magic-user.

Munx had an expression of half-surprise, half-scorn about her face as she spat at the mage. “Really wish you tricksters would warn people beforehand. Could’ve spooked me to death.”

“Focus, people…” Crykz tried his best to maintain everyone’s attention, motioning to the stretch of cavern ahead as he spoke. “Pylr, get the compass and inclinator up and running, I’m going to want updates on our location at regular intervals. Keddug, you’re on marking duty. Have Munx pass you the charcoal sticks from her pack and mark the walls of caves we’ve explored every 20 meters.” A faint clitter-clatter of metal echoed from Pylr’s levitating workstation as Keddug groaned in annoyance and stuck an arm out towards Munx, who in turn gave him a scoff as she dove into the backpack once again. “Remember folks, sooner we have this place all mapped out, sooner the Dominion gets their new mineshaft…”

“And the sooner we get enough silvers to last us all to retirement!” Pylr joyously shouted.

Crykz took a long glance back down the direction they’d come from, the faint glow of daylight still visible from the cave entrance, the echoes of the rain pouring down upon the surface of Fellerwrath Hurst still just within earshot. The four of them packed expecting this trip to take potentially days, no intention of resurfacing until they’d scoured every inch of these caves. Scanning the faces of his teammates, he knew every one of them wasn’t leaving without their payment from the Gwillithmire Dominion assured.

“Well…” said Crykz, “Time to get to work.”

The four Aonar Tíre moved gracefully down the jagged decline of the cavern, stepping and bounding across stone outcroppings and over protruding shards of rock as if they’d done it since birth. The further and further they went, the more the stone walls surrounding them grew uninviting and imposing. The air felt still and heavy, a biting cold chill trying its best to seep into their hides. The few things illuminated by the pulsing mosslight of their lanterns were the cramped stone surface stretching all around them and the occasional speck of life in the form of a spider’s web or patch of fungi. The only solitary thing they heard was each other’s breathing.

The silence was broken when Pylr’s voice rang out: “Virgin passage reached. Currently facing Southeast by South, depth of 12 meters below the surface.” Upon hearing this, Crykz nodded to Keddug, who in turn took a charcoal stick and marked the nearby cave wall with a large “X”. Pylr was recording data without even touching the equipment hovering before him, his pen swiftly dancing through the air as it accurately traced the walls of the cave, forming a map that grew with every step they took.

Crykz smiled with anticipation, for they were now in unexplored territory.

The next hour or so passed uneventfully. Every few minutes Pylr would send out another report of their position, reverberating across the rocky tunnels as Keddug drew mark after mark disdainfully. While they were busy mapping the cave’s branching paths, and Crykz was preoccupied with leading them down turn after turn deeper into the earth, Munx remained silent and wary, holding onto the straps of her pack so tight her hands nearly bled.

After a while, a new noise echoed forth in the form of a deep, booming rumble.

The four paused for a moment to try and pinpoint where the sound had come from. Munx swiftly threw her backpack from her shoulders and dug inside looking for some unknown item. Pylr glanced at his notes and almost inaudibly whispered “East by South, depth of 29 meters…” before his workstation slowly lowered to the floor and a crackling orange light came to life in the palms of his hands. Each one of them was nigh motionless, their eyes scanning each and every crevice around them as they laid in wait for another disturbance.

Several silent moments passed before a timid whimper arose from Keddug: “Sorry… That was me.”

Crykz didn’t even get to say a single word in reprimand before Pylr handlessly rolled up his papers and smacked the cowardly Aonar Tíre upside the head. Wincing through his words, Keddug shouted back at his assailant “I said I was sorry! For the Architects’ sake, I wasn’t able to get anything to eat before we left Hillcrook…”.

Munx’s nerves finally began to calm down as she took another glance within her pack. “Well, we have tons of glaprebread biscuits in here, if you want one of those…” Keddug’s ears perked up at the mention of the bag’s contents, almost leaping over to Munx’s side as she pulled forth a neatly-tied bundle of what nearly looked like cakes, fluffy and covered in sprinklings of brown sugar. The broad Aonar Tíre could barely even hand her starving colleague one before he snatched it loose from her grasp and swallowed half of the biscuit in a single bite.

Keddug mumbled through his full mouth, “Can you believe Penumbras call this stuff bland?! It’s incredible!” Crykz rolled his eyes while Pylr quickly joined his colleagues in their quick lunch break, Munx already chowing down on a biscuit herself as she handed one to her spellcasting compatriot. “Only downside-” Keddug nearly burped his words as he spoke, “- is that they fill you up faster than you can blink.”

As the other three were busy indulging themselves with food and chatter, Crykz’s senses caught something just at the end of their perception. Something faint, echoing forth from who knows where. A gesture of his hand and a hiss from his mouth felled the noise of his colleagues as he strained his ears to hear the distant sound. At first it almost sounded rhythmic, reverberating again and again every few seconds. Perhaps water, dripping from some crevasse or protrusion in the rock far ahead?

Crykz motioned for the others to pack up their meals and start moving forward again, cautiously inching further and further down the creeping cavern, all of their senses alert as the noise very slowly grew in volume with each step.

“Almost sounds illusory…” Pylr whispered as they crept forth, “… Could perhaps be outworld tech from some lost traveling human, or maybe even ancient Eo machinery…”

“Did the Eo ever settle this far south?” Munx muttered in curiosity. A simple shrug from Pylr was the only response she got. She scoffed right back. “Guess they don’t teach much about that at Esewyn Academy…”

Yet another harsh shush crawled from Crykz’s lips as the two’s bickering was silenced. His ears practically standing on end, the curmudgeonly Aonar Tíre zoned in on the mysterious sound. The rhythm had variations and lags to it, the sound itself changing in pitch and… key?

Crykz’s blood went cold as he identified the sound.

“There’s someone down there.”

“Hello? Is someone up there?”

Keddug narrowly avoided choking on his own food when he noticed the voice echoing from below. Munx and Pylr stood silent and shocked, while Crykz motioned for the three of them to stay still as he called out: “Who’s down there?!”

“Hello?!” The voice called back, faintly sounding as if it were on the edge of tears. “Can you help me? I’m stuck!” Crykz listened closely as he motioned for Keddug to mark the cave wall, Pylr already trying to calculate their current position. “My legs were crushed beneath a rock when I fell down here! It’s been a whole day! Help me!”

“Hang tight! We’re on our way!” Crykz shouted down the tunnel before conferring with his colleagues. “Sounds like a human, could be an outworlder.” He whispered. “We’ll have to hang up the expedition momentarily and get this poor bastard out of here. Check your whistles.” Crykz reached towards his neck for a small whistle of tin shaped like a face, hanging by a string from about his throat. As Munx and Keddug did the same, Crykz blew hard into the instrument, sending out an ear-splitting screeching sound that reverberated across the cavern’s entirety. As the others joined in, the cave momentarily became a chorus of howling, high-pitched noise that forced Keddug to pull his ears shut in pain.

“Well, signal whistles definitely work. If anything goes wrong, howl on those things like your lives depend on it.” Crykz glanced back down the tunnel to shout out to the stranded human. “Keep yelling! We’ll head right for you!” A quick glance back at his team signaled them to start moving again, as the human’s cries resumed to echo towards them. “Pylr, what’s our heading?”

“East by North, and a depth of 31 meters.” Pylr proclaimed, as the four swiftly bounded down the cavern, their lanterns swaying and bounding wildly as they raced across the craggy floors. In a moment they stepped out from the winding tunnel and into a large chamber easily stretching several meters above their heads, a pair of branching paths descending further into the dark before them. “Any idea where he’s shouting from?” Pylr cried out to his colleagues as they listened as carefully as they could manage. The chamber’s walls distorted the echoed shouts and hollers of the peril-stricken human, making it so even Crykz wasn’t sure where they were coming from.

“Bugshit! Alright, hand me a charcoal stick, Keddug.” The sheepish Aonar Tíre tossed a hunk of charcoal from the bundle in his hands as Crykz’s eyes trained down one of the passageways. He promptly stepped up to the passage’s entrance and scrawled an “X” across the stone wall. “Me and Pylr will take this passage, you and Munx head down the other. If you run into another branch, you double back right then and there and follow my marks until you meet back up with us.”

Keddug and Munx quickly vanished down the other passage without another word, Pylr giving his curmudgeonly leader a determined nod as they set off fast down their own tunnel. As they went, Crykz scrawled mark after mark almost without pause, Pylr keeping the pace for him as his quill flew back and forth across his levitating desk. “Northeast by North, depth of 44 meters!” The mage’s billowing white cloak was getting covered in dirt and dust with each step, intermittently illuminated by the perilously swinging lantern in his hand.

Minute by minute, the cries of the human grew louder, until Crykz could make out the faintest glow of light ahead of them. Peering down the winding tunnel, he could see yet another massive chamber ahead that was faintly illuminated by streaks of dull sunlight coming down from above. Old and rotten leaves in hues of brilliant oranges and reds littered the cave floor, made damp by the rain from the world above leaking down into the chamber. Towards the center of the room, a mess of logs and loose stones sat in a pile besides a large pool of murky water.

“Hello?! Is that you down there?!” The human was scarcely visible from behind the pile of rubble, his hair a long and matted mess of dull grey fibers, his clothes plain and form-fitting, his expression invisible beneath the hanging mane of hairs that cloaked his head. “Thank goodness! Quick, help me get out of this mess!”

As Crykz tried to set off towards the injured outworlder, Pylr stuck an arm out before his leader to stop him dead in his tracks. “Pylr, what in the Architect’s name is your issue?” He tried to meet the studious Aonar Tire’s gaze, but the mage was focused almost entirely on the man ahead, his gaze an odd implacable mess somewhere between surprise and sorrow. Crykz couldn’t comprehend what was the matter. “Say something, you trickster fool! What’s wrong?”

“Please don’t…” Pylr was muttering under his breath, his voice a shaky mess as his eyes grew widened with fear. The cavern was completely still and silent, the human’s cries gone and the rain from above halted. The light from the Fellerwrath Hurst up above their heads began to grow dark as shadowy clouds rolled in far above the autumnal canopy, an unwelcoming gust of wind finding its way down into the cavern and blasting the warmth from the bones of the two Aonar Tíre. “Please don’t tell me…”

“Please don’t tell me…”

Crykz though he was hearing echoes reverberate off the cavern walls at first, but after a moment of thought, he realized the repeated whisper was far too clear to be the simple bouncing of sound across a stone chamber. Something was dreadfully wrong.

“Please don’t tell me…” The perfect repetition of Pylr’s voice called forth once again, as Crykz’s senses finally placed the source. Pylr slowly reached his hand inside his cloak as the two stared transfixed at the man ahead of them. The cavern let a roaring echo consume it for just a brief moment as a brilliant bright flash of lightning raced across the stormy sky far above.

The voice called out again, perfectly replicating Pylr’s voice syllable by syllable.

“Tell you what, little cave-walker?”

Crykz could feel his pulse start to quicken as he watched a glassy, colorless eye peer out from beneath the human’s mess of jet-black hair.

A second later, the other came into view.

And then, suspended by green, wire-thin stalks, the eyes parted his hair back out of his face.

What was now face-to-face with the two Aonar Tíre was very clearly anything but human. Its eyes slowly contracted back into its sockets as its spindly and stained three-fingered hands came into view. It did not breathe. It did not blink. Its head rested perfectly still as it stared emotionlessly ahead at the cavers. Its face was a total perversion of what the two Aonar Tíre understood as human, its mouth splitting at five long, symmetrical points across its sunken, noseless face. Almost glimmering from beneath its misshapen maw was a clustered mess of razor-sharp spines closely resembling pointed teeth. Its skin was a putrid shade of dark, dull gray-green that shifted to a deep brown hue just below the neck, creating the illusion of clothing.

As Crykz stood transfixed by the grotesque attempt at humanity lying ahead of him, a faint click echoed forth from the figure as its head suddenly rose, then again, and again, all the while the neck beneath it grew into a lengthy, winding stalk, twisting and turning around itself in a sickly mess of unnatural limbs and joints that grew in number with every snap and shiver the creature produced.

Pylr grabbed hold of Crykz’s hand and rushed the two back up the tunnel behind them as the creature let out a sharp, chittering howl in ecstatic glee.

“Stiltfolk! RUN!”

The screech of the Stiltfolk cascaded across the entire cave system as Crykz and Pylr raced across the jagged rocks as fast as their feet could take them. Glancing back behind them as they ran, Pylr clutched a small leather scabbard he had retrieved from within his cloak and cried desperately with every step, “Keep running, keep running, KEEP RUNNING!”

The sound of something fast and heavy impacting against the cavern wall echoed from back down the tunnel, as Crykz looked behind them to see the Stiltfolk’s gnarled hand slam into the rock just a couple meters away, carried by a lengthy winding appendage that buckled and bended chaotically as it clawed itself off of the stone wall and shot further up the tunnel, a cascade of clicks and breaks heralding its approach as it started to catch up with the duo.

“False alarm, Crykz! We can stop running now!”

The Beast’s voice called out to them clear as crystal, still imitating Pylr perfectly as they bounded up the passage further and further. In response, Pylr took his lantern and threw it with all his might, sending the glowing glass sphere careening down the tunnel and straight at the grasping hand pursuing them. Stunned from the impact, the hand lagged behind them and allowed them time to rocket out of the passage and into the chamber they’d split up in earlier.

“We can’t outrun him forever, Crykz! We should just go back and help him!” The creature’s calls continued to reverberate forth from far below, the sounds of limbs colliding with rock echoing back and forth as it began to make its way slowly up towards them.

“Pylr…” Crykz was struggling to catch his breath, his gaze unable to leave the passage entrance. “… What… in the name… of the ARCHITECTS… is THAT thing?!”

“Stiltfolk.” Pylr shakedly replied, “Fucking things grow to resemble humanoids, and they’re damn good at acting the part. What one’s doing this far South of the Fellerwrath Coast is far beyond me.” As the mage went on about the nature of their pursuer, its outstretched appendage turned a corner in the passage below and came into view, creeping towards them as if taunting their defenselessness.

“Normally we’d be screwed every way conceivable now, but luckily for us, Esewyn Academy’s generosity might just come in handy.” Pylr stepped towards the passage entrance as the hand shot forward to grab him, throwing his arm out with a swift swipe before a chittering shriek of anguish resounded through the cavern and a streak of amber liquid cascaded down around the mage, the twisting limb retreating back towards the darkness in a matter of moments.

Turning back to face Crykz, Pylr held in his grasp a small, sparkling dagger forged from a violet-tinted metal and flecked with glimmering blue slivers throughout. “Castalt metal.” Pylr scoffed, “One of the only things known to hurt those bastards like you wouldn’t believe.” The studious Aonar Tíre tossed the dagger into his curmudgeonly leader’s hands before turning to peer down the other passage. “Wasn’t expecting a little trinket the Academy gave me to come in handy like this, but special dagger or not, that was way too close for comfort.”

Crykz caught his breath just in time to let out a shout of realization, “The others!” Without any further notice, he grabbed the tin whistle from about his neck and blew into it hard, sending a high-pitched musical screech out through the cave system. A few seconds later, a second, much fainter screech came echoing back in reply. “That’d be them,” Crykz muttered, “They’re still down that other passage.”

Pylr sighed in frustration, “Right, so here’s the plan of attack.” A flourish of his hand and a slight push upwards into the air conjured forth a tiny mote of orange flickering light above the mage’s head, proceeding to bounce and swirl up and down as it danced through the air orbiting his entire figure, illuminating the chamber in a dim, warm light. “We get down that passage as fast as possible, we grab Keddug and Munx, and we climb out of here and back to Terrenbridge before that Stiltfolk can gather its senses again.”

“Right, no time to waste then.” Gripping the castalt dagger tight, Crykz led the way for him and his colleague as they set off down the opposite passage, a deep and distant chittering from the injured Stiltfolk sending a shiver up his spine as they embarked. The sound of lightning crashing far ahead still sent faint echoes through the narrow tunnels as they went, at times accompanied by the faintest sound of rain pitter-pattering against the earth above as the passage raised close to the surface, before promptly diving back down further below.

After a few minutes following the markings Keddug had left behind on the cavern walls, Crykz was stopped when a curious new feature came into his vision. Turning a corner in the passage, a portion of the cavern wall suddenly took an unnatural shape, flattened from a craggy and bumpy wall to an almost perfectly smooth surface. The bitter caver ran his hand across the wall out of transfixed curiosity, his mind swiftly tumbling from explanation to explanation until he pinpointed the nature of what lay before him.

“… Are we near the Fiefdom border?” Crykz hushedly said. Pylr stepped up to investigate as well, swiftly running a finger across the smooth stone and bringing the dust-covered digit up to his mouth to taste it. A nodded reply to Pylr’s superior confirmed their suspicion. “Changes from granite to slate here. Must be right on the edge of the Moorich-Fellerwrath boundary… By the Architects, that means we’re just meters away from the borders of the Dominion.”

Another few minutes passed as the two cautiously continued on, taking note of every charcoal mark they passed as the tunnel began to descend further and further without relent. “Hard to keep track of our depth.” Pylr said, “Lost the inclinometer back in the other passageway.” Eventually the two came to another branch in the cavern, with one passage going up towards the sound of rain above, one stretching further down into the dark, and the third a narrow dead end too small for a human to enter.

“The marks end here…” Crykz muttered, “Where in the Architects’ name did they go next?”

Before the words had even finished leaving his mouth, the two were silenced by a sharp, piercing scream echoing from the upwards tunnel ahead of them.

“That sounds like Munx…” Pylr whispered as the cry slowly fell silent, followed by the faint sound of chittering laughter far off behind the pair. “Bugshit! How far can that thing reach?!” Crykz’s nerves stood on edge as he watched the wheels in Pylr’s head turning, before the mage stuck his arm out motioning for the bitter Aonar Tíre to return his dagger. “I’m going to head up that branch to see if I can still help her, you hide out in that alcove there in case Keddug is still hanging around down here. If something goes wrong, blow that whistle like there’s no tomorrow.”

Pylr gave his superior a confident salute as he raced off up the passage, leaving Crykz alone in the cavern as he set his sights on the dead end tunnel. “Well…” He jokingly murmured, “Here’s hoping I haven’t put on as much weight as I think.” Ripping his steel helmet from his head, Crykz crept up to the narrow opening and dropped to his knees before starting to squeeze his way in.

Normally being underground and climbing through tight passages would be an everyday comfort to most Aonar Tíre like Crykz, but the situation at hand had perverted his enjoyment into a creeping, choking anxiety. Every scrape of his metal scales against the rock had him convinced the jagged stone would rip his flesh open, every tumbling pebble disturbed by his movement made him feel as though the weight of all of the Middenground was trying to crush him. After a shallow-breathed struggle that felt ten times longer than it should, Crykz finally tumbled into the cramped chamber behind the opening.

As he struggled to catch his breath and steady his nerves, a familiar, sheepish voice called out from back behind him.

“Crykz? Pylr? Where are you guys?”

“Keddug?! Is that you?!”

Crykz peered out of the narrow opening as best he could, his lantern starting to grow dim as the shape of his timid colleague climbed up from the downward-reaching passage ahead of him. From what he could see of the Aonar Tíre, they looked worn out and sickly, their gaze distant and their swaying with every step.

“Crykz?!” Keddug could barely manage a shout of relieved surprise, as he took a few steps closer for Crykz to make out a serious gash in one of his arms, dribbling black blood with every movement he made. “How did you even fit in there? Where’s Pylr?”

“He went to go find Munx, Keddug.” Crykz stammered as he tried to make out the severity of his colleague’s wound. “That looks horrible… What happened to you guys?”

“We got separated when we heard you guys screaming back down the other passage…” The sheepish caver looked as though he was struggling to remain upright, stumbling against one of the cave’s walls as he spoke. “Munx ran back to try and find you, and then this… this giant creature came out of nowhere… it grabbed hold of my arm, but I bashed it against a rock to stop him…”

“By the Architects, Keddug…” Crykz said, “… Just hang in there, okay? Once Pylr comes back we’ll run straight back to Terrenbridge, and you’ll have enough silvers to get the best food and medicine the Dominion can offer.”

“That’s good, Crykz… That’s really good…” Crykz could just faintly see something unusual behind Keddug, something long and skinny, twisting and turning. Keddug fell limp to the ground as he kept half-heartedly muttering. “Crykz… I’m so hungry…” The curmudgeonly caver felt his stomach drop as realization started to creep up on him. Keddug’s appearance seemed to shift, his tired gaze now glossed over and lifeless, his worn out body now hopelessly bruised and broken. The sound of snapping and popping faintly echoed behind Keddug as the shape tangled around itself ad nauseam, a sudden spasm in the Aonar Tíre launching his head up from the ground to meet Crykz’s gaze. “I haven’t had anything to eat for so long…”

Crykz jumped back from the opening and pressed himself against the other side of his tiny chamber for dear life, watching as a grotesque approximation of a human face slowly emerged from the darkness behind Keddug’s lifeless, puppeted body. The corpse of his colleague slowly lifted back up from the ground and suspended itself in the air, held aloft by the creature’s winding and twisting arm. The rain not far above was pushed out of Crykz’s senses, the biting cold of the cavern air numbed away from his skin. He grabbed furiously onto his long, pointed ears and pulled until it felt like they would come off, watching as the Stiltfolk began to lift Keddug’s body towards its mouth, before the creature’s jagged maw folded open to an impossible width and slammed down on the dead Aonar Tíre’s arm, ripping it clean away from the rest of the body as it immediately vanished down its throat.

“It’s so sad, Crykz…” The beast continued to mimic Keddug’s voice, grinning wide at the cornered caver as it tossed the body aside as if it were a piece of litter. “I thought I was so clever trying to slam into that rock, but all I did in the end was kill myself from the impact.” Crykz was voicelessly muttering every thought that crossed his mind, pleading, apologizing, begging, praying, his silent words slowly working their way into utter rambling nonsense. The Stiltfolk’s head crept closer to the opening, one of its eyes protruding from the socket to race forward towards Crykz and stop mere inches from his face, staring him down like the beast had won some extravagant prize.

The voice of Keddug began to shift, the beast mocking Crykz’s lips as they rambled on and on, until the Aonar Tíre was suddenly hearing his own voice speaking to him, taunting him, interrogating him.

“What’s wrong, Crykz? What are we talking about?”

“No…” Crykz found his voice again, barely a whisper, standing face-to-face with an impossible inhuman monstrosity.

“No? Are we confused?”

“I…” Averting his gaze, the caver’s eyes wandered back to Keddug’s lifeless body, barely visible as the lantern in Crykz’s grasp was barely producing any more light. “I’m…”

“‘I’m sorry?’” The Stiltfolk whispered, its arm suddenly springing back into action as a torrent of cracks and pops brought it through the chamber’s opening to latch hold of Crykz’s throat, slowly lifting him from the floor as he gasped desperately for air. “Are we apologizing to poor Keddug? To little lost Munx? To ourselves?”

Crykz’s strength was starting to leave him, his lungs screaming for air as the Stiltfolk began pulling him towards the opening. Just on the edge of his senses, distant yet mere meters away, he heard something new. A voice, gruff and growly, crying out to Crykz.

“You in there! Get ready to run!”


Crykz tumbled back down to the cavern floor, gasping for air as the Stiltfolk howled in agony, its voice breaking and fragmenting into a collage of those it mimicked. Somewhere beyond the opening, a glimmering flash of light bouncing off castalt metal was accompanied by a downpour of amber blood, as the creature tumbled out from the chamber and seemed to drag itself back down into the dark. As the Aonar Tíre began to struggle his way through the opening, the Stiltfolk only kept screeching.


A shadowy figure raced past Crykz’s vision, bounding into the upwards passage before he could get a good look at them, as the caver tumbled loose of the rock and ran after them as fast as his feet could take him, the chittering screams of the Stiltfolk fading into nothing as sunlight started to breach the cavern’s darkness ahead.

The jagged stone beneath his feet suddenly gave way to grass and leaves as Crykz stumbled out onto the surface of Fellerwrath Hurst, his muscles almost giving out as he fell face first into the damp earth. His pulse slowly settled as he turned himself over to stare up at the brilliant orange canopy and stormy blue sky above. His strained ears now welcomed the sound of birdsong and falling rain as a chilly breeze brushed against his side.

A faint look of relief began to spread across his face before his view of the sky above was obstructed by his spellcasting companion’s visage, staring back at him in amazement.

“Crykz! You’re alive!”

Crykz jumped up from the ground to greet Pylr, rushing towards him and hugging him without warning. Pylr stuttered in surprise before hugging him back. “I think I’m gonna stick to the Academy after this caving foray.” He joked. Peering over his colleague’s shoulder, Crykz could see Munx standing nearby, her clothes torn and dirty and her helmet almost broken in half. He released his arms from around Pylr and held them out expecting to hug her too, but her gaze refused to meet his, instead staring transfixed at something back behind him.

“Crykz, where’s Keddug?”

The caver sighed as he turned to address Pylr. “He’s not coming up…” Understanding Crykz’s tone, the mage’s gaze fell towards the ground for a brief moment as the trio stood there. “We’ll contact House Rhime-Romoch about his death when we get back to Terrenbridge. Once the Dominion comes in to set up their mine, they’ll be able to take care of that Stiltfolk and retrieve his remains.”

A funny look suddenly formed on Crykz’s face as he grabbed Pylr by the shoulder. “Wait, you didn’t see him when you were down there? I thought that was you who chopped that creature’s hand clean off and saved me.”

Pylr stared back at him befuddled, “No, I was up here helping Munx. She was sitting against a tree stunned out of her mind when I got up here, saying that someone came by and scared the daylights out of her. Kept talking about something she’d heard about years ago when she’d visited the lands across the Rethian Sea.”

Crykz turned to look at Munx again, still staring far behind him in disbelief. “Munx? What did you see?”

“You can see her for yourself,” Munx muttered, “She’s walking away behind you.”

Spinning around to try and see what Munx was talking about, Crykz caught a glimpse of a figure walking into the fogline off in the distance behind him: a tall, black-haired woman, dressed in a chainmail shirt and bright blue cloak, balancing a castalt axe in her grasp as she confidently walked away and vanished into the mist.

“I’d heard stories, back when I was working in Kukaki…” Munx continued, “The Blurrs there had all kinds of legends, but I didn’t think she was a real person…”

“Huh, wonder why they were here…” Crykz whispered to himself for a brief moment, curiously staring at the mist where the figure had stood, before re-focusing his attention back to his colleagues. “Well, Munx… You’ll have to tell us all about it when we get back to Terrenbridge.” Pylr nodded excitedly as he threw his arms out before him, flourishing and swaying them through the air for a brief moment before a spark of glimmering color shot up from his palms and transformed into a ghostly disk of swirling hues hovering above his head, shielding him from the drizzling rain as he stepped up beside his companions.

Crykz nodded right back as a confident smirk formed on his face.

“Let’s go get our damn payment.”

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