Brenn rubbed her hand along the uneven texture of the stone wall beside her and had to grit her teeth against the urge to fix the one hundred and thirteen things that were wrong with it. The surface was a nightmare of uneven edges and unfinished cuts. Green-grey mold came away from the wall where she touched it. It wasn’t substandard work Brenn saw before her, it was worse than that. They weren’t standing in a created space, one crafted and cut to fit a purpose. The passage around them was a scar of destruction ripped through the rock and stone that stood between one point and the next.
“I’ve never been a part of the Mining Guild but this doesn’t look a dwarf was ever even near this work before,” Jyl said.
“There are more than dwarves in the Mining Guild,” Brenn said. “But you’re right, this isn’t worked stone. It was torn apart.”
“By monsters?” Pelay asked.
“Of one kind or another,” Brenn said. Probably the worst monster of all if Brenn’s guess was right; humans in a hurry.
Brenn, Jyl and Pelay had passed down through maintenance tunnels and closed sewer works, long forgotten overflow cisterns and never used defense posts. They were pursuing a pair of girls who’d been the target of a simple street mugging, and despite over an hour of pursuit were no closer to their goal than when they’d started.
Neither of Jyl nor Pelay had named the missing girls, but Brenn didn’t need to be told that their quarry was one of the foreign princesses the queen had brought back from the war with the Green Council. If a regular girl from Brenn’s neighborhood had been snatched down to the Deep Galleries there would have been an investigation but it wouldn’t have involved two of the Queen’s Guard and it wouldn’t have involved sending people down to retrieve the missing person.
“I found another trail mark,” Pelay said, pointing to a small series of scratches on the wall.
“How is she leaving those?” Brenn asked. The previous one’s they found had been left in concrete or well worn stone surfaces. Easy enough substances to mark if you knew what you were doing. The latest set of marks were carved into Chiselbreak – stone hard enough that you generally used enchanted picks to work it. Whoever had cleared the downward sloping path that they were on had clearly lacked those tools and contented themselves with carving away the weaker vein of rock to make a passageway.
“She’s carrying an enchanted blade,” Jyl said. “Or more importantly, she’s still carrying an enchanted blade.”
“Or whoever took her is,” Brenn said and wanted to bite back the words. Dwarves are dour. Everyone said that. Everyone knew that. Everyone except dwarves themselves.
“I don’t read Council glyphs,” Jyl said. “But that’s what these look like to me.”
“So either Iana’s leaving the marks herself so that we’ll follow her, or whoever snatched her is from the Council and is leading us into a trap,” Pelay said.
Her eyes reminded Brenn of a rabbit. Furtive, forever twitching about looking for sign of danger. There was no arguing with the results though. Pelay had picked up signs of Iana’s passage that even Brenn had missed, and Breen considered herself to have a masterful ability to read stone.
“Anything’s possible,” Jyl said. “I’m putting my money on Iana though. She knows we were watching over her.”
“I think whoever took her wants to get her lost,” Brenn said. “For all the traveling we’ve been doing, we haven’t moved that far from where we started. A lot of the ups and downs we’ve followed them through have been spiraling us around beneath the Silver Spring Shrine.”
“They’re avoiding sanctified ground?” Jyl asked.
“No, we’ve crossed underneath it a few times now,” Brenn said.
“Are the sewers more advanced under the Shrine than elsewhere?” Jyl asked.
“The sewer works we’ve been through? Not so much,” Brenn said. “If anything there’s fewer sewer routes than normal.”
“Why would that be?” Pelay asked.
“The space is in use by something else.” Jyl said as she worked out the possibilities.
“Basements, sub-basements and catacombs most likely,” Brenn said. “Shrines, churches and temples, they all seem to love to build themselves on top warrens of catacombs.”
“Good job security for you though right?” Jyl asked.
“I’m not with the Guild,” Brenn said, and braced herself waiting for the typical onslaught of questions. The idea of a dwarf with extensive stoneworking knowledge who wasn’t part of Gallagrin’s Mining Guild was too much for some people to process. They had to know her justification for being so horribly different from their expectations, no matter how personal the reasons might be.
“Excellent,” Jyl said. “Then I won’t get in trouble for doing this.”
Brenn hadn’t expected that response, and in her experience statements like that were never followed up by any safe or sane courses of action.
Jyl confirmed that guess when she brought a small whistle to her mouth and started playing out a distinctive medley of tweets accompanied by a rhythmic wraps against the stone floor.
“That’s not a rock caller is it?” Brenn asked, pointing at the whistle which had begun to glow in Jyl’s mouth.
Jyl looked studiously away at that, pretending to have no idea what Brenn was referring to. It would have been a good act, except for the rumbling beneath the earth which grew steadily louder as Jyl played.
Brenn knew of the device Jyl was using. She’d never seen one though, primarily because they were outlawed by the Mining Guild and avoided like the plague by every sane person who ever ventured underground. Using a rock caller when one was surrounded by the uncountable tons of earth was roughly the same as summoning a tornado while riding in a sky carriage.
The Earth elemental who burst from the wall at the end of Jyl’s playing filled Brenn with a sense of calm.
It was possible to banish small Earth elementals with the proper materials and rituals. This often resulted in deaths of two or three of the ritual’s casters as even small Earth elementals did not enjoy the process of being expelled from the material realm.
There was no worry of that with the Earth elemental that Jyl summoned though. It was far too large for any simple banishment ritual that Brenn could think of performing against it.
And it formed its body from the Chiselbreak stone of the walls around them. So fighting it with swords or picks was out of question too.
Hence the feeling of calm. Panic was useful to spur a flight or fight response. When you were completely doomed, only calm made any sense.
“Why did you call that?” Pelay asked, backing away from the elemental with a look in her eyes that suggested to Brenn a lack of understanding of how little a few extra feet of distance would help.
“Gnasher here can take us through a few short cuts, help us catch up with Iana and whoever took her,” Jyl said.
And then she started drumming her fingers on the elemental’s head.
And it rumbled.
No, not rumbled. Purred.
It rubbed against Jyl and she switched to tapping a rhythm onto it with both hands. It was like a pair of drum beats and the elemental’s body bounced and weaved in time with the song that Jyl was playing on it.
“What in the crystal caves have you done to that thing?” Brenn asked, mesmerized by the dancing of a creature far too heavy and ungainly to ever be doing such a thing.
“Nothing,” Jyl said. “Gnasher just likes a good beat.”
“How do you know the name of an Earth elemental?” Pelay asked.
“I don’t,” Jyl said. “I picked Gnasher since I can’t speak Earth elemental. I’d need boulders in my throat to make the right sounds from what I’ve read.”
“Where did you read about Earth elementals?” Brenn asked.
“I, uh, probably shouldn’t say. It wasn’t a place that encourages visitors and they might be unhappy to learn I’d snuck a peek at some of the forbidden scrolls.”
Brenn’s mind whirled. How had an elf, of all people, broken into one of the Sacred Vaults? They were guarded by every trap and defense known to dwarvenkind!
“How will Gnasher be able to help us sneak past Iana’s captors?” Pelay asked. “I’m guessing they’d notice a few hundred tons of rock slinking up behind them.”
“Oh we’re not going to slink up anywhere,” Jyl said. “We’re going to beat them to the deepest levels of the catacombs.”
“Why there?” Pelay asked.
“Because when it comes to catacombs, that’s always the place the important people hang out,” Jyl said. “They go down into the depths to get away from the surface folk and they farther they are, the safer they feel.”
Brenn wanted to debate that point, citing the numerous Dwarven cities which didn’t conform to the “deepest is best” philosophy, but when it came to catacombs she was hard pressed to think of any where that wasn’t the case.
“I don’t really want to ask this, but is this shortcut going to leave the walls down here at all stable?” Brenn asked, thinking of the immediate peril of bashing a new path through the underground.
“Perfectly,” Jyl said. “We won’t disturb them a bit.”
“That leaves me so full of questions,” Pelay said.
“Then step aboard and experience the answers for yourself!” Jyl said, and promptly stepped into Gnasher’s open mouth.
In the long list of things Brenn had never expected to find herself faced with, the prospect of willingly leaping into the crushing jaws of a monster the size of a small geographic feature was near the top of the list. With Jyl leading by example though it was strangely easy to follow.
Once Pelay joined them inside the beast’s belly, Gnasher took off.
“It doesn’t feel like we’re hitting anything but we’re definitely moving,” Brenn said.
“Yeah, we’re skimming on the edge of the Solid Space,” Jyl said. “Which you may know better than I do.”
“That’s the mythical parallel universe the gods drew the material of our world from,” Brenn said.
“Not so much mythical as inimical to our sort of life. Elementals love it though,” Jyl said.
“I understand none of this,” Pelay said.
“Picture a dimension of solid earth,” Jyl said. “Now picture the sort of creatures who could live there. That’s Solid Space and Earth elementals.”
“How do you move around in a place of solid earth?” Pelay asked.
“Either you can phase through matter, like Gnasher here, or you sit in one place forever,” Jyl said.
“There are a few other options but phasing is the most preferred,” Brenn said. “How did you ever discover all this though?”
“Before I was a Queen’s Guard, I spent a fair bit of time adventuring on my own. It’s how I found my Pact Spirit,” Jyl said.
“Ah, you’re an Adventurer,” Brenn said. She tried not to make it sound like she was saying “Ah, you’re completely insane” but she wasn’t sure if she succeeded.
Her clan had experience with Adventurers. They sent such foolish souls into the deep, dark places of the Earth to retrieve things that no one in their right mind would risk searching for.
And now she was with one of them.
Venturing into a deep, dark place.
The sense of doomed calm settled on Brenn’s shoulders like a well worn blanket.
“For what it’s worth,” Jyl said. “I obviously survived, and retired, so I’m not one of the ones who would bite off more than they could chew.”
“Biting and chewing are not exactly comforting thoughts at the moment,” Pelay said.
“Just be glad you didn’t grow up listening to ghost stories that ended almost exactly like this,” Brenn said.
“When we get back from this, when not if, you should have some excellent stories to tell at the next moot you attend,” Jyl said.
“That is a very dwarven payment for services rendered,” Brenn said. “If not for the pointy ears, I’d almost think you had some of our blood in you.”
“Elven to the bone, I’m afraid, but you love a few dwarves and it’s funny the sort of things that rub off on you,” Jyl said.
The wistfulness in her voice invited further questions but those were set aside as Gnasher’s mouth opened to reveal they’d arrived at the deepest level of the catacombs, and they were far from alone.