The Fates decided it’s time to get stealthy. Ren Londaar wants to enter the monster’s tower through the secret tunnel.
Oh, dear. You didn’t seriously think trusting a talking box is a good idea? You must be new to this game. That, or you want to see the world burn. Well, I suppose nothing’s set in stone. One doesn’t always get sick from curdled milk or drown after an attempt to run on water. Let’s hope our story doesn’t come to quite as an abrupt end as all that.
No matter how you look at it, Ren Londaar thinks sneaking in through the tunnel is the best option available. Compie’s desire for revenge so far aligns with his own goal: killing the monster.
The journey from the floating tower to the shadow of the monster’s keep was much quieter than the last trip along the beach. Dawn, overawed by the revelation of Ren Londaar’s identity, keeps starting sentences and then cutting them off with a squeak. Ren’s requests that she treat him as before have so far been ineffective.
Compie, now nestled in the knight’s hand, his gauntlet enclosed around it, is silent for most of the journey, but speaks up as they approach the monster’s keep: “The secret tunnel isn’t far from here,” it says. “Just a little further up the shore. You should see a cave in the cliffs backing the beach. We’ll enter through there.”
Sure enough, the knight sees a crevice in the rock wall. He approaches it. Dawn shrinks back behind him, her curiosity evidently leaving her at the sight of the dark cave.
Ren isn’t afraid of the dark, the knight realizes. Facing the black beyond the entrance, he feels nothing but defiance. He sets Compie on the sand and pulls out a lantern and a fire starter from his bag.
“Dawn,” he says, “you must hold the light. I need my hands free if we meet something… unfriendly.”
Lantern lit, they enter the tunnel. Their first few steps are illuminated by a shaft of daylight pouring in from behind, bouncing off the wet gleaming rock walls. As they advance further in, the lantern throws a warm glow over an arched entrance rising out of the rock wall, its surface carved into a dense pattern of rosettes from top to bottom. Dawn brushes it with her fingers as they pass through, eyes wide.
Ren finds steps descending into darkness, carved into the rock floor. Intricate reliefs of vines and flowers line both sides of the staircase. Anywhere aside from Ferax they would be beautiful. Dawn, small by his side, holds the lantern high. Her trembling hand makes the flame bounce and flicker, the playful shadows bringing the plants to life.
“It’s just a trick of the light,” the knight says, noticing the girl’s hesitation. “Stay close.”
Dawn obeys, but she shies away from meeting his eyes. His skull must not look quite as romantic in the darkness as it does in daylight. Good, he thinks, the battle shall be monster versus monster. A fair fight.
“What if the creature knows we’re here?” Dawn whispers beside him. “We won’t see it coming.”
“Silly girl.” Compie’s voice is loud and tinny, echoing in the darkness. The Eternal Knight flinches. “My master kept it hidden from the abomination. It has not found this tunnel in twenty years! I don’t expect it will find it now.”
“You heard the box,” Ren reassures Dawn without turning his head. An uneasy silence falls over them. Dawn stumbles on a loose step but says nothing. He doesn’t know what would comfort a pink-haired teen. Still, he should say something to keep her occupied.
At a loss, he addresses Compie instead. “Box, you never told us who Turcifa was before he ended up on the beach.”
“My beloved master was a noble from the capital, Ag’ave,” Compie began. “He was a genius magician and a scientist known throughout Ferax.”
The box recited the old man’s story as if reading from a biography. The Knight supposed even crazy old hermits want their deeds recorded and remembered.
“Master Turcifa,” Compie explains, “along with his wife, and his newborn babe were visiting this keep, their summer home, when they got news of the curse spreading from inland. Naturally, they barricaded themselves in and waited it out. Unfortunately, his darling daughter was exposed to it and turned. His wife, eaten by grief, perished soon after. Master Turcifa committed himself to finding an antidote to the curse, pursuing his research with the limited tools at his disposal. He even captured a monster which he used as a test subject for his cure, but the beast got loose and took over the tower. My master’s research is no more and Ferax is that much worse for the loss.”
The box finishes its tale just as they reach the last steps. In front of him, the knight sees a round chamber, supported by eight arches, its ceiling tapering off high above them where the pillars converge into a relief depicting a pomegranate tree, its branches heavy with fruit. The knight’s steps echo off the floor where a dense floral mosaic is still visible under layers of dust. On the other side, the knight sees three heavy doors.
“Which one, box?”
“Take the middle door. It’ll get you to your destination fastest.”
Unwillingly, the door yields under his weight and creaks open. Beyond is another dark corridor.
“This curse on Ferax,” the knight asks Compie as they walk on, “who cast it? You said it spread from the capital?”
“Rumor is it was the king himself who cast it when his subjects demanded change.”
The light suddenly jumps in Dawn’s hands, almost flickering out, and the girl shrieks in terror.
Ren Londaar pulls her toward himself, ready to attack. “What did you see?”
“I- I think it was a rat,” the girl gasps. “But it was white… and weird.”
The knight relaxes. “Descend to the underbelly of any human habitation, and you’ll find it swarming with vermin. Just don’t let it get close to you.”
A short time later, Dawn’s lantern swivels again, this time illuminating the corridor behind them, plunging the knight into darkness.
“Oh, it’s not a rat!” Dawn crouches, extending her hand toward a small, white creature wearing a big, domed hat and holding a tiny, wooden spear. “It’s a mushroom creature of some sort. Such a precious little thing, isn’t it?”
The girl is right. The mushroom, small enough to fit in the palm of Dawn’s hand, squints at the bright lantern with plain dislike, and dodges her attempts to touch it. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a notebook and pencil and begins sketching. Her hand moves wildly over the paper, tracing the shape of an angry mushroom.
“Is now the moment for this?” asks the knight.
Dawn looks up at him guiltily from her sketch and begins to obediently put her notebook away. Disturbed by her deference, the knight waves her on, listening for any signs of trouble.
When Dawn’s sketch is done, the knight takes the lantern and looks around. Where there are rats — or mushroom men in this case — there are cracks in the structure. Sure enough, he sees a fissure in the ceiling. A mushroom cap pops its head outside and seeing him, retreats. Then another peeks out, and a third, fourth, fifth, and sixth.
The Knight takes a step back and feels a soft squelch under his heel. Under his leg is a white stain, smeared into the stone floor.
“Auch!” Dawn yelps and withdraws her hand. “It pricked my finger!”
Furious, the mushroom man in front of Dawn lets out a soft, little war cry and attacks her feet. Dawn dances away, and the knight hears the mushroom’s cry repeated above them as more white creatures pour out of the ceiling.
There you have it. Off to a good start, aren’t we?
Option 1: Death to the mushroom men! Cute they may be, but in a horde they are vicious. The Knight does battle with armored elbows and stomping feet! This is bound to get messy, but they started it.
Option 2: It would be an ignominious end to perish here at the spears of aggressive fungi! Time to run through the dark tunnels and run fast. Well, as fast as a hulking armor can.
Option 3: If Turcifa got through these tunnels, then so can the Eternal Knight. Maybe these warlike ‘shrooms can be appeased with some of the loot they found from Turcifa’s tower! Everybody likes loot, right?
The chapter voting closes every Monday at 8:00 AM WEST (Lisbon, Portugal time).