Deni shivered in the corner of the dimly lit wagon. He knew that the harsh wastes of Arctoa were going to be painfully cold, but even prepared, the viciousness of the climate was astonishing. The black trench coat he usually wore had been replaced by a body-length coat fashioned of a multitude of brown furs with a leather lining on the inside. Even his head was covered by a cylindrical fur hat. So how could he still feel like his heart was pumping ice around his body?
The wagon hit a bump and the velen nearly fell off the makeshift bench. On that occasion he had been lucky. Throughout the long journey he had actually fallen on his face three times, much to the hilarity of his companions. Deni grunted into the black scarf wrapped around his neck and attempted to hide his smile. If the others were reminded of his blunders he would never hear the end of it.
We must be getting close now, Deni’s thoughts bubbled up agitatedly. Feels like we’ve been on the road for weeks!
His blue eyes scanned around the wagon for what must have been the hundredth time. Boxes of supplies and tools were scattered throughout the limited space, strapped to the floor by leather bonds more often than not. The narrow bench ran along every side of the wagon except for the door. A lantern caged in the middle of the floor gave the wagon its pale glow. The velen took in the sight of the three laicar on the opposite bench. Arctoans, part of the group that Vaferis was dealing with. They were also coated in fur from head to toe, but didn’t seem to feel the cold half as much as he did.
Deni scooted closer to Ignis and Aeria.
Conversation. Anything to pass the time.
“Did I ever mention that my bloodline can be traced from Arctoa?” he said, though his voice was a little muffled by the scarf.
“Right back to the Cataclysm, or thereabouts. That’s why I don’t tan so well.”
Aeria snuggled down deeply into the thick furry parka that she wore. It was stitched together from the skins of sea creatures that lived in Arctoa and still smelled slightly of them, but it was incredibly warm. The inside was lined by the hair of a large deer-like creature that lived on the wastes. Her legs were swathed in thick pants made of the same materials and her feet shoved deeply into thick boots. Her tall, slim frame was lost in the heavy clothing, but she seemed to shiver less than Deni.
Her eyes met Deni’s as she peered from inside the hood that swaddled her face, expression skewed by a wry smile, despite the frigid air that blew across the small amount of exposed skin there.
“I would’ve thought that someone with Arctoan bloodlines would be a little more sure-footed on the ice. I didn’t see our Arctoan friends falling on their asses!”
She laughed and good-naturedly clapped Deni on the shoulder.
Deni grunted and tried to hide his sullen glower.
“I shouldn’t really give you such a hard time. It isn’t like I haven’t had a spill or two as well. Let’s face it, us southerners just aren’t cut out for this kind of thing.”
The spurii turned to look at Ignis, also swaddled in cold weather gear. Aeria inquired, “How are you holding up, Ignis? Has the cold seeped into your bones too?”
With a chuckle, Ignis shook her head. “No, I'm bundled up pretty well. It's a little colder than what I'm used to, but this cloak insulates well.”
The dark green cloak she wore was made of leather from basilisk hide. Black buttons held it closed over the heavy sweater and pants she wore, made of similar material to Aeria's layers. Beneath all that, her feathers had fluffed up to trap warm air near the enlil's skin, giving her a slightly chubbier look than usual, but keeping her at a surprisingly comfortable temperature.
Amicus had his own cloak and a thick scarf wrapped around his branchy shoulders.
“Plus, I've got feathers. They're really warm.” She reached an arm out from where it had been tucked within the cloak to touch Aeria's cheek. Her hand was surprisingly warm.
The enlil tilted her head to the side. “Maybe I should warm your face, huh Den? You're looking a bit like a velen-sicle.” Her lips quirked upwards at the corners behind the scarf covering the lower half of her face. The visible parts of her face had reddened from the brisk winds penetrating the wagon.
Ignis withdrew her hand from Aeria's cheek and tucked her arm back inside her cloak. “What I wouldn't give for some coffee right now.”
Deni massaged his forehead as he remembered the sensation of drinking a mug of piping hot coffee.
“I’d give one of these frostbitten limbs for a cup,” he groaned. A short smirk crept onto his face. “At least you ladies seem to be doing alright. Maybe I could do with your help defrosting a little bit.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, the wagon lurched and the pelagian barely managed to stay upright.
Aeria laughed as the velen was jostled out of his flirtation and jabbed him lightly in the ribs with her elbow.
“Oh you’re so suave and debonair! You can warm me any time, Mr. Deni!”
Ignis laughed at Aeria's teasing and Deni's foiled attempt to flirt.
“Maybe we should help you keep your balance instead,” the enlil jibed.
Another bump? Deni thought to himself, but the three fur-covered laicar on the other side of the wagon had ceased mumbling between themselves and had risen to their feet. The wagon had stopped moving.
“I guess we’re there,” Deni shrugged. The three laicar flung the doors at the back of the wagon open and a severe chill whipped inside, setting goosebumps in Deni’s skin despite his thermal gear. Another basilisk-drawn wagon was visible but aside from that, the terrain was pure white, thick snow covering the ground as far as they could see through the doors.
“Aer, can you pass us some of those snow-walker things?” the velen asked as he gestured to a box the spurii was closest to. The Arctoans attached the strange woven circles to the bottom of their boots to avoid sinking through the snow. All of a sudden, anticipation seemed to warm Deni’s blood.
“I wonder what we’re going to find out there.”
“Well I hope it’s something exciting! Freezing my ass off up here better be worth the price of admission.” Aeria’s face had immediately started turning red from the wind that whipped across the snow. She drew up the face covering that was part of the parka’s hood to block the flow of air.
Reaching into the container with the snowshoes, Aeria handed pairs to Deni and Ignis before taking a pair for herself. She fumbled with the fastenings, hurrying after she’d removed her mittens to work them on in the frigid temperatures. All around them, everything on the ground was white, grey horizon to grey horizon. A few flakes straggled down from the slate-colored clouds but the air was shockingly dry. Jamming the mitts back on her hands, she snatched up her halberd, testing the butt of it against the frozen ground.
Glancing across at the Arctoans, there was no sign that they noticed the frigid wasteland spread out around them. They were relaxed, chatting comfortably with each other in their melodic language as though it was just a balmy summer day.
Ignis quickly strapped on her own snowshoes before scooping up her familiar and bringing him into the dark green folds of her cloak.
She stepped out of the wagon carefully, but, to the engineer's relief, the woven circles beneath her feet kept them from sinking into the dense snow. Ignis took a few careful steps to test how steady they were, keeping her cloak pulled tightly around her body to ward off the occasional, whistling breeze.
Arctoa was like some sort of frozen desert, with snow in place of sand, the avian mused. Shaking the thought off, Ignis slipped her chilled hands under Amicus’ little coat. The shrub-like woodland spirit was surprisingly warm.
He squirmed, but allowed the contact, simply drawing on Ignis’ energy to warm them both.
As Deni followed the two women out into the endless snow, voices rose from the other wagons. A short, fat laicar coated in similar furs to Deni came into view, shadowed on one side by a tall demvir with a greatsword on his back. On the other was another terran that towered over the plump man. Beneath the overcast sky, it was difficult to tell whether his hair was golden, touched by the cold or white from aging. With a squint, Deni managed to recognise two of them.
“The fat one there is Vaferis, the merchant that organised this entire thing,” the velen informed his companions, fighting for volume against the sound of the rushing wind. “The demvir is his assistant and bodyguard, Bolus. Don’t know who the other one is.”
“That’s Joakim Solblað,” one of the Arctoans said with a northern slur. Deni gave a start. He didn’t expect a woman’s voice to come from behind that scarf. “You’re lucky one so powerful and respected would deal with you southerners. No one else would.”
The other two Arctoans seemed to find her comment funny, but Deni shook his head. Before he had time for a witty reply, the three of them had turned their backs and began trudging uphill.
“A lovely bunch,” he murmured.
Ignis glanced from her companions to the Arctoans, withholding comment for the moment. Unsure of whether to feel more irritated at the Arctoan woman’s attitude or curious about why southerners weren’t usually dealt with, the enlil dithered.
“I guess unless we want them to drop us in this wasteland, we’d better keep up!”
Turning, Aeria began an awkward walk up the hill, her body adjusting to the strange positioning required to move with these things on her feet. However, by watching their guides and using the butt of her halberd as support, she began to move more easily by the time they’d topped the rise.
Moving to catch up to Joakim, Aeria fell in step with him as best as she was able. He was an extremely imposing figure in his thick furs, but she looked up at him and started speaking in a confident tone of voice.
“I hear that we’re to be surprised that you’d agree to deal with southerners. May I ask why that is?”
There was nothing but openness in the spurii’s body language and her expression remained studiously neutral as she looked up into the man’s intensely blue eyes.
“Aeria’s got the right idea,” Ignis said a few moments after the other engineer moved ahead. “We should try to keep up.”
Her first steps in the snow shoes were a bit unsteady, causing the enlil to wobble, but she continued, paying close attention to the way Aeria was moving. Ignis looked to the Arctoans now and then and adjusted her own stride until she was moving slowly, but steadily enough to trail behind them.
Deni began to pant after about a dozen steps of trudging through the alabaster waste. The depth of the snow was hindrance enough but meandering uphill was exhausting. Then there was the matter of the wind chill. It lashed like a whip and the velen was certain he could feel the cold carving a red painting on his face.
The sound of Aeria’s question got Ignis’ attention, quickening her steps to hear the answer. The half-avian was a woman after the enlil’s own heart at times like these, asking the questions that were on Ignis’ mind.
Deni arrived just in time for the wind to carry the weary baritone of the Arctoan leader.
“Many say you don’t belong here,” Joakim replied, absentmindedly. “Some think you bring bad luck, that the icy storms roil when you set foot on our land.”
Aeria’s head turned sharply as she glanced over at Joakim but she waited before making any reply.
The imposing terran rolled his shoulders as if to keep them limber. He did not look at Aeria, but his mildly slurred voice took on a more direct tone.
“I do not believe that superstitious nonsense. We hold many traditions and beliefs, some that are centuries old, but I believe what I see. I see hungry bellies. I see the cold bring death every day. I break decades of tradition to deal with southerners. You bring food, furs, what we need to survive. Everybody has a purpose in this land.”
“It seems like you’re a practical man, Joakim. I like practical people. I’m sure you and I will get along just fine.” Aeria’s smile was quick and bright.
The plump merchant wandered off with a checklist in hand and Joakim turned his stony gaze to Ignis and Deni as they caught up.
“What of you three? What are your reasons for being here?”
Glancing over at Ignis and Deni, Aeria’s face was expectant but her mouth stayed shut.
“We’re with this one,” Ignis said, gesturing to Deni, “to explore some ruins.” The enlil panted slightly between words. She was still keeping up with the group, but wasn’t used to sustained physical activity like this.
Inwardly, the avian wondered if she should start exercising on a regular basis. Before, Ignis hadn’t thought she needed to work out, but this trek was proving that assumption wrong.
Her face reddened with exertion and the biting winds, leaving Ignis a bit too breathless to finish her thought aloud.
Ignis’ comment drew Deni’s gaze from his footing. He passed glances between the two women before finally locking eyes with Joakim. After a few silent moments of staring, the velen shrugged.
“Uhh, yeah,” he responded in a lackadaisical manner. “We’re here to explore ruins.”
“I don’t think that is why you are here at all,” Joakim bellowed. His voice was not angry. Just loud. “You may think you’re here to explore, uncover some ancient mystery, but I think you’re here for protection.”
They continued up the hill with the Arctoan.
“Why else would a merchant hire three veterans of the Black Portal campaign?”
“That… too…” Ignis managed to add, wheezing a bit. “We’re in high demand, yeah? Good at not dying.”
Aeria’s sharp face wore a pensive expression as she turned it to look into Joakim’s craggy face. “That’s one possible explanation and the most probable. Say - what do we know about this merchant anyhow?”
The biting wind and driving snow made her withdraw further into her thick parka. Her lanky, lean frame was moving more easily in the snowshoes, but with ease of movement came a great expenditure of energy.
Joakim was silent for a moment, his tired eyes staring ahead up the seemingly endless hill of snow.
“About as much as I do, apparently,” he murmured, a low rumble. “If half the whispers of the Black Portal campaign are true, that makes you three of the most dangerous fighters here. As soon as the others find out they’ll turn white in the face. They won’t be bothering you for long.”
Aeria’s face bore a slightly crooked smile as she shot a sidelong glance at Joakim. “Well, it seems our reputations have preceded us!”
A few wisps of smoke drifted toward Aeria and Ignis. When Joakim eyed the cigarette in Deni’s mouth, the velen shrugged.
The tall laicar stopped suddenly and the others immediately felt why. The wind grew stronger, lashing against skin indiscriminately as if something had made it restless. They topped the rise and looked down into Ísvaskur.
Ísvaskur. The name in one Arctoan dialect meant ‘ice basin’. It did not capture the true nature of the ruined city.
For several dozen miles the perimeter of the basin stretched, containing the ruins below inside an almost perfect circle. Snow blanketed most of the fallen city, but here and there the top of a once great spire lay, missing its roof or half of one side. Chunks of grainy white stone were scattered throughout, conical roofs with a silvery tint as if made of metal gleamed in the limited sunlight. Toward the far side of the crater, a large oval chamber the size of a kinchaa stadium glittered as it caught caesar’s rays. It was riddled with cracks and gaping holes that could be seen even at such a distance.
From their position atop the hill a few miles up, Deni’s gills tensed subconsciously. His cigarette nearly fell out of his mouth.
“By the Vis… what a sight.”
Aeria came to stand next to Deni, her angular face peering out from the heavy confines of her hood, eyes scanning over the magnificent ruins that spread out below them. A low whistle emanated from her lips. “What a sight indeed! I can’t believe all of this is just sticking up out of the ice out here.”
She turned to catch the eyes of Ignis, Deni and Joakim, there was a sparkle in her own gaze. “I’m sure there’s all sorts of fascinating goodies hiding down there too!”
“No kidding,” Ignis murmured, eyes glued to the ruins before them. The feathered woman bit the inside of her cheek to make sure she hadn’t fallen asleep and started dreaming of fairy tales again. The coppery taste in her mouth confirmed the reality of the sight before the motley group.
The enlil could almost see the ghosts of the people who had once populated this frigid basin, their figures slipping between snow dusted buildings as if it were a normal day.
“I wonder what happened here,” the avian uttered just loud enough to be heard, talking more to herself than the others. How many people’s stories had come to an end before the unforgiving winter began erasing them flake by flake?
“There are many theories,” a melodious, well-spoken voice answered from beside them.
Vaferis was a short, rotund man. His body didn’t seem to suit the fur coat or cylindrical hat, but his pink cheeks were the only sign that he felt the cold at all.
“Some believe it was a city, others that it was a remote settlement, hidden or isolated for some reason lost to time. Some believe it was destroyed during the Cataclysm or even that its original location was lost and it was swept here from elsewhere. It might have been ruins before the Cataclysm, or it could have survived it somehow and been destroyed through other means. Nobody knows, but I intend to find out.”
He passed a brief smile around all of those present and then stormed off with considerable grace for his size, calmly shouting orders over the wind. Deni stared after him with an unreadable look.
One of Aeria’s eyebrows quirked up slightly as the rather pompous man finished his disquisition and charged off with a vigorous step.
Joakim mimicked the velen’s stare for just a moment before he turned to address everyone within hearing distance.
“This side of the basin has the mildest incline. We will descend from here,” he bellowed. “The merchant is organising the cable teams so that we can make it back out of Ísvaskur, but we are Arctoans! We have no need of such contraptions.”
That produced a few rumbles of laughter that could be heard despite the wind.
“You three can make your way down there as soon as you like. I don’t fear for your safety.”
With that, Joakim marched forward, striding down the slope in his snowshoes, other Arctoans in tow.
“I guess it’s time to go?”
“Looks like it! C’mon!” Aeria’s sharp eyes focused on Joakim’s legs as he began striding down the slope. A moment later, she followed suit, her stance and motion mirroring Joakim’s. Her halberd’s butt end dug into the snow with each step, firmly held in her strong grip. Although the sides of the bowl were steep, her motions were fluid and easy; each step with the snowshoes kept her weight distributed.
Ignis followed after Aeria and Joakim, feeling too curious about the ruined city below to wait around. Vaferis’ theories were interesting, but the temptation of exploring the place couldn't be satisfied by mere conjecture. Perhaps there would be clues about what happened to the people who once lived here, ghosts of the past embedded in the ice.
The journey down the slope was mostly quiet, aside from Deni almost slipping over again. This time, Joakim responded.
“You’re too sure of yourself,” he bellowed with a slight grin. “You strut like you own this place. You don’t. It owns you.”
After a few grumbles, the velen exhaled smoke from his cigarette and chose to keep his mouth shut. Though he did appear to walk more carefully.
Before the slope had fully eased into flat land, they had started to pass the first chunks of stone. Deni stared at one huge piece of debris that must have belonged to a tower of some sort. His eyes narrowed, looking for any other signs of damage.
“That chunk there,” he began, nodding towards the debris. “Aside from where it was ripped apart, it’s completely blemishless. Looks cleaner than any stone I’ve ever seen.”
Aeria walked up, tapping slowly at the stone with the butt of her halberd, looking it over from all angles with a pensive expression. “You’re right, Deni. That’s way too smooth for something that’s been sitting here for supposed ages.”
Tapping Joakim’s massive arm with her gloved hand, Aeria pointed to the stones. “What can you tell us about those? I’m sure your people have stories about what they are. It always pays to ask the locals,I find.”
The bowl-like depression was strewn all over with the stone debris, pieces of which also had carved decorations of intertwining plants and animals and inscriptions written in an elegantly flowing script unlike the blocky Arctoan runes that one usually saw in the region.
”We have not ventured here too often,” Joakim replied in a deep rumble, though he didn’t make eye contact. He appeared to be squinting at something in the distance. “Everything we have found here has been unlike anything else that we have ever found in Arctoa.”
A simple nod was the only acknowledgement that Aeria gave to what the Arctoan giant had said. The spurii glanced along Joakim’s line of sight, focusing her keen eyes into the distance while furrowing her brows. She pointed out towards whatever the man was looking at and asked, “What do you see out there?”
The expanse of white around them rendered everything flat and the grey sky stopped any shadows from defining the area around the party. It was like looking out into a blank, white room.
Ignis followed Aeria’s gaze, using a hand to shade her eyes from the bright sun reflecting on the ice and snow. Her brow was knit at the strangeness of the ruins they passed on their descent.
The enlil wandered a few steps away from the rest of the group to examine a chunk of stone that had once been part of a building. The feathery engineer crouched to examine the runes. She rifled around inside the deep pockets within her cloak and pulled out a pad of paper and stick of graphite to sketch some of the runes for later. Perhaps a trip to the Arcanum would help her find more information once they got back.
Ignis began to return to the small group, but something beneath her feet made an unsettling cracking noise. A flash of panic triggered her battle honed reflexes. The avian crouched and pushed off, arms flapping powerfully to generate enough lift to keep her in the air just as the snow and ice beneath her feet gave way. Chunks of frozen water tumbled down to create an opening in the ground.
Joakim and the other Arctoans, Deni and Aeria all spun at the sudden sound.
Heart still racing, the enlil let herself glide back to the safety of the group and touch down lightly, cloak billowing around her before it settled.
“We should really watch our footing,” Ignis commented with a sheepish smile, as if she hadn’t almost fallen to her death.
Deni forced the wide-eyed expression off his face. After what had almost transpired, he didn’t know whether his heart or Ignis’ was beating faster.
“I appreciate the advice,” the velen said breathlessly, restoring his usual humour. “And you all laughed at me for tripping and falling!”
Aeria pulled her body out of its crouch, lounging nonchalantly against the haft of her halberd as her shoulders relaxed out of the tense line that they’d adopted. She just shook her head and laughed. “I guess we’re all a bit on edge huh?”
“I think I see the opening of a building up ahead,” Joakim announced suddenly, pointing to a wrecked dome on its side.
Following the line of the powerfully-built Arctoan’s arm, Aeria’s gaze focused, enlil blood making her eyesight sharp and nodded her head affirmatively. “Yes! There’s definitely a way in.”
Turning in a half circle to look from Joakim to Deni to Ignis, the spurii raised one eyebrow and jerked her head towards the ruins. “So are we going in or what?”
“I say we go in. That's what we're here for anyhow,” Ignis declared, eager to move away from the sinkhole she'd created. Smoothing her robes down, the enlil marched ahead, though not without some hesitation in her steps.
“Sure,” Deni replied, hoping the uncertainty was not present in his voice. His blue eyes fixed on the colossal ruin.
The dome had cracks in it, where chunks of the material had fallen away. The spaces where parts of it had been carved or blasted out were oddly smooth and clean like some of the other ruins they'd passed on the way here. Frowning, Ignis began moving around the dome from a distance, trying to examine it before approaching the opening. The scare from earlier kept her curiosity in check.
Joakim made a loud verbal click that echoed around the snowy valley. Hand signals had one or two Arctoans darting back up the slope, but most of them made their way towards the dome, behind Ignis.
Deni followed his enlil companion cautiously. The smooth white stone seemed to loom over the small group of adventurers. Even broken and possibly turned on its side, it would have matched the size of some of the greatest buildings in Terminus. Blue eyes scanned down towards the gap into the ruin. It was wide enough for two tall people to fit astride. From his current distance, Deni couldn’t tell what was inside. It looked dark.
The velen wiped his arm across his forehead. Despite the cold, he was sweating.
“Looks like a fun place to have a picnic,” Deni said with a grin as he followed Ignis. He turned to Aeria. “Hope you remembered to bring the Songen dumplings and peppermint tea.”
“Oh yeah. I have ‘em right here. I can’t wait for a picnic!” A sheen of sweat also stood out on Aeria’s skin, peering into that inky darkness with enlil-powerful eyes, squinting as light glinted from the white stone around the opening.
The hole in the side wasn’t completely regular, but it wasn’t ragged either. It almost looked as if a huge fist had punched into the building, knocking it over and sending it sprawling across the landscape. The shadows inside the opening were heavy and the spurii stood right at the edge. “Do we have a torch or something? We’re going to need it in there.”
Frowning, Aeria leaned in, shaking her head and turning to the others. “I swear that I can hear something coming from in there. Do any of you hear anything?”
The velen shook his head.
“The only thing I can hear is my pulse in my ears.”
Ignis neared Aeria and Deni's side and strained to hear.
“It's faint,” the avian said, confirming Aeria's senses. “Maybe snow or water flowing? Wind? It's hard to say.”
The typically adventurous engineer decided to wait for Joakim and his men to catch up and gather round. Perhaps one of them would have a torch. She glanced at Deni and Aeria noting the sweat slicking their faces from the trek down. Ignis reached up to touch her own face and it was wet.
Finally some of Joakim's men lit some torches, the firelight revealing some of the dome's interior. The walls had cracks, spider webbing near the entrance and some crumbled piles of stone had structure to them that suggested they had once been part of pillars or statues.
Snow had blown in, leaving glittering white mounds scattered around the lit area. When Ignis squinted, she could make out more runes.
Deni placed one foot gingerly inside the ruin, a small mound of snow spreading under his weight. His blue eyes scanned everything that he could see. The dome might have been huge, but rubble took up most of the space inside. Fallen stone, large metal rods, occasionally the limb of a statue. Arctoan torches showed that there was about as much room to manoeuvre as there would have been in a small apartment.
The velen sighted the visible runes on what might have been a plaque directly ahead. Tilting his head to the side, he squinted at the odd symbols.
“I think I recognise one or two of these runes,” Deni said uncertainly. “I could be wrong, but I think this is an old velen form of the Himai script.”
“Well…” Aeria prompted her velen companion, “What do they say then? Can you make it out well enough?”
The faint sound of water now seemed to be stronger to the spurii. She stood behind Deni, peering over his shoulder as she leaned on her halberd for support. Behind them, Joakim’s bulk loomed and curious voices were raised in the Arctoan tongue, but their leader boomed them into silence with his baritone voice. A sense of expectation seemed to hang over everyone as they waited for Deni to deliver a translation.
Deni shook his head.
“It’s an old, dead script. Nobody I ever knew uses it anymore, but I once met a professor that was interested in it, years ago. I only recognise a few shapes, but I have no idea what they mean.”
The mention of the old script drew Ignis’ attention like a magnet. Despite her earlier missteps, this adventure was turning out to be much more like what she had initially dreamed of. Exploring abandoned ruins full of forgotten knowledge and rare artifacts wasn’t necessarily the kind of adventure novel Ignis would have chosen a year ago. However, after her other misadventures, the avian was happy to take the opportunity to adventure without imminent death hanging over her. Besides, the earlier incident only proved that there was sufficient danger to make this excursion exciting.
Her head turned (Ignis’ attention span had always been short), eyes straining in the dim lighting.
“I think I see something.” The engineer pointed rather than walking over to it.
Only those with the sharpest vision could make out the stone doorway leading to a set of stairs descending into further darkness without additional lighting. A closer look and the help of torches would reveal more runes engraved on the doorframe, not unlike the Himai script Deni was trying to decipher.
The pelagian looked over to the archway that had caught Ignis’ eye. He had to squint to make it out in the limited light. A few of the Arctoans approached it cautiously and Deni shifted away from the fallen plaque to investigate. A complete, unbroken doorway in a humongous building where everything else was debris. Everything about the place only raised further questions.
Deni stared down the stairwell ahead for a moment before turning to his companions with an excited grin.
He sat on the first step and unclipped his snowshoes before striding down the staircase.
The doorway and stairs might have remained untouched, but nobody could say the same about the corridor they led into. Shifted onto its side from whatever force shook Ísvaskur, Deni had to tread carefully from the final step into the passageway.
Had it been straight, two people would have been able to walk the corridor of white stone abreast. On its awkward angle, however, only one at a time would fit unless people clambered over each other.
Deni’s eyes gazed around the place in wonder. Silver-framed paintings lay scattered and broken amongst the rubble, though one or two remained hanging from the walls. Wrecked bookcases and cabinets littered the rubble, but the path was not completely blocked.
Deni shook his head.
“This place…” he muttered, his voice trailing off.
After having stopped to remove her snowshoes and stow them away, Aeria joined her companions in the ruined space. She tapped her halberd on the floor with each step, listening for a moment before going on. About to shout to Deni not to go too far, she cut it short when he began striding down the stairs. Muttering under her breath, she ran to catch up with him.
Her eyes went wide as they took in the ruined opulence that emerged into view once she’d left the strangely angled corridor. She breathed. “I wonder what this was….”
After a moment, her expression became more business-like. “Now before you go gallivanting forward, let me test the floor with the halberd. There could be traps or even just weak spots ahead of us. I’m not an ingenarius for nothing you know!”
That last quip was accompanied by the quick flash of a smile. Again she glanced around. “This would have been quite something when it wasn’t ruined.”
Ignis followed along, stumbling a bit at the top of the stairs. Sheepishly, she paused to unclip her own snowshoes before descending the stairs.
“Good idea,” the enlil said, remembering how her own carelessness had nearly dumped her into a hole earlier.
Her eyes trailed over the mess. What had happened here?
While Aeria tested the area for traps, Ignis focused on the toppled book cases. Would any of the books there have pages in good enough condition to identify the contents?
A click sounded, the only warning before a hail of knives flew at the group. The room was indeed trapped.
“Down!” Deni shouted. A blade sliced his shoulder and he hit the ground with a curse. The sound of metal ringing on stone filled the corridor as blades bounced off the walls. A few rolled across the velen’s back.
Another body dropped in front of Deni. One of the Arctoans. Sanguine liquid ran over their dark gloves as they grasped their own throat. It was sometimes hard to tell under the big coats and scarves, but those big, terrified blue eyes had to belong to a woman.
“Aquila’s arse,” Deni grunted. He couldn’t deny the pain of his own injury, but it was insignificant compared to hers. He placed both of his gloved hands on hers and applied pressure to the wound. “Amicus!”
Ignis, for her part, had dropped to the floor, but not in time to dodge everything. The avian’s cloak protected her from most damage. That vendor hadn’t been lying about the quality of the reinforced basilisk leather the garment was made of after all.
A blade sliced across Aeria’s right arm, high up on the bicep as she dove out of the way, throwing herself flat on her face.
“Vis-damned bloody fucking hells!” She shouted as blood ran down her injured arm. She dropped her halberd, clamped a hand over the wound and began looking around for something to bind it. She pulled off the belt she was wearing and tightened it around the arm, stopping the blood as she stood and hurried over to where Ignis lay.
“Is...is she alright?” Furrows formed in the spurii’s forehead and her jaw was taut as she looked her companion over. Glancing behind her, she shouted to Joakim. “Do you have medical supplies or anything we can use in your packs, Joakim?”
“There’s a lot of blood here!” Deni yelled. The crimson began to run between his fingers.
Joakim was still stood in the archway, staring through into the room as the swarm of blades sliced through his people. His tired blue-grey eyes betrayed no emotion at the scene before him.
The final chime of metal on stone sounded. The Arctoan waited a few seconds before rushing down into the tilted corridor. His gloved hands went into a sachel at his waist.
“I have a few basic supplies, what do you need?”
“Bandages! We need to cover this wound.” Aeria looked with alarm at the woman laying before her and back at Deni, her face a mask of worry.
The shouting that followed got the enlil’s attention and she began to push herself up just as Aeria rushed over. A thin, but deep line crossed her right cheek, dark red fluid spilling from it rather quickly. Pressing a palm to her facial wound, Ignis urged Amicus to go and help the woman Deni was trying to save.
She stared with a vacant expression as Amicus stumbled over as quickly as possible and held up glowing, green hands in an attempt to at least stop the bleeding. Desperately, Ignis pushed as much of her energy through her companion as possible. They needed to stop the bleeding two minutes ago if this woman was to survive.
Joakim did indeed have bandages and some soft, clean moss-like substance to use as an absorbent. He also, thankfully, had an herbal concoction that seemed to prevent infection. Aeria doused her hands in it as well as the bandages before she knelt down beside the woman. She glanced at Deni. “I’m going to dress the wound while Amicus tries to heal it. I’ll bind this pad in tight to slow the bleeding, but I need you to keep pressure on the pad until I start wrapping it.”
Her voice trembled slightly but remained in control. In her mind, a voice sounded, strong and clear: The contigeri does not falter, the contigeri does not show fear. When those around us fall, we stand!
The spurii’s jaw set and she began helping Deni and Amicus tend to the wounded woman.
Deni nodded, his expression fortitudinous and calm.
“Start patching her up in three… two…”
The velen removed his gloved hands from the wound and the deep red fluid flooded from the hole in the woman’s neck. Aeria placed the pad quickly and Deni leaned his blood-soaked gloves on the pad with as much pressure as he could. The woman coughed as Aeria began to dress the wound. Her eyes watered. Deni could feel the life flowing from her. Her body grew less tense. The healing from Amicus was not stopping the bleeding fast enough. They were running out of time.
“We’re losing her!” Deni shouted through his teeth.
Amicus held up his branchy hands, channelling healing energy in hopes that Castus would help save the Arctoan woman. The pad Deni held to her neck was wet, worryingly so. The woman appeared to be weakening even more.
Ignis' look became even more vacant as all of her attention focused on fueling Amicus' healing. They were working together, the engineer providing the energy and the mons infans guiding it. Their thoughts and feelings were indistinguishable from one another, just two halves of a whole coordinating to complete the same task.
The woman gurgled a bit before gagging and coughing. She gasped loudly and coughed harder. Still weakened from blood-loss the woman only had enough energy to turn her head to the side and spit out bloodied saliva.
"Wha-?" she croaked, as if surprised she still lived.
Deni let loose a short, relieved laugh.
“Alright, you’re going to live,” he said victoriously. The velen pulled his blood-stained gloves away from the woman’s throat as Aeria continued to patch up the wound. His blue eyes swung over to Ignis, who was just lifting herself off the ground. He approached her with a spring in his step, cursing the pain that pulsed from his shoulder.
“Are you alright?” he asked the avian, then removed her hand from the cut on her face. He stared at it, stroked around it with a thumb.
Ignis' eyes turned slowly to focus on Deni's face. A few seconds passed before she seemed to recognize her partner and the avian blinked a few times.
"I'll live," she said, gaze turning to the velen's injured shoulder
He let loose a low laugh.
“Wish I knew how to heal. It’s never been one of my strong points.”
Meanwhile, Joakim analysed the device that the knives were fired from. It looked similar to a wardrobe but designed to appear built into the ruins. Yet it wasn’t fixed to the wall.
“Tread with caution,” the bulky laicar announced loudly in that deep baritone. “We don’t know what other surprises may be waiting for us.”
Aeria hauled herself to her feet, shaking and brushing her hand across the soft fuzz of her head, before glancing around in a semi-dazed state. Her voice wasn’t terribly steady and she had to take a deep breath before she tried to speak. “I t-think we’ve learned our lesson, Joakim.”
She waved her halberd around and added, “I’d rather lose part of this thing than part of myself so if you want any traps probed or whatever, let me use this to check.”
Now she grew steadier as she moved, walking around to pat Amicus and kneel down next to Ignis. “Thank you Amicus and Ignis! You two make a great team, but we’ll do our best not to tax you too much and not stumble into more traps.”
"But of course you're welcome," Deni replied with a touch of feigned petulance. "Any time anyone needs a hand to stop the bleeding while you guys get your arses in gear, just give me a shout."
Ignis nodded along with Deni's statement. She was happy to have saved someone's life, but would rather no one else needed rescue.
Deni squinted down the corridor ahead. Cracks in the ceiling gave enough daylight to see further than the torches allowed.
The pelagian pointed past a large chunk of smooth stone.
"Is that a pile of books on the floor there?"
Aeria walked over to the pile of books, poking at it with her halberd. After nothing happened, she squatted down on her haunches to take a closer look at it and raised an eyebrow. “I can’t read all of the writing, but there’s some stuff here in the common tongue. They appear to be occult books of various sorts. By the looks of them, they’ve been here for a while.
Looking around, she let out a yelp. “There’s a spot here that’s clear of dust. Someone’s been here and taken one of the books!”
Glancing back at her companions,she queried, “Who do you think could’ve been here and what would they want with these books?”
Ignis also turned her attention to the books as Deni pointed them out. She walked closer, but let Aeria take lead. Once the spurii affirmed there were no traps, the avian walked up to investigate the spot indicating a missing book.
"Could someone have explored these ruins before us?" The pale woman crouched and pulled a book forward to examine it. She opened it to reveal more of that common tongue and what appeared to be enchanting diagrams.
"It's odd they didn't take all the books. These probably have valuable information inside."
A handful of Arctoans carefully spread ahead of the trio, tapping the ground and prodding inanimate objects with their lances and swords to test for traps.
“Maybe they were after something specific,” Deni mused, “whoever they were.”
Aeria nodded sharply. “Yes. I think that’s right, Deni. I’m willing to bet that they knew that these books were full of knowledge that they could use!”
While his friends analysed the books, the velen drew the sniper rifle off his back and gripped it through his bloodstained gloves. He mimicked the scouts, poking at rubble with the gun as if anything could contain another trap.
“Watch your step!” someone suddenly shouted from ahead. Deni immediately quickened his pace to catch up with the Arctoans.
Ignis' head snapped towards the shout, heart racing. She sighed quietly in relief upon realizing no one was hurt.
Blue eyes widened as the pelagian reached the scouts. The end of the corridor had been severed, disappearing into a black chasm below. The gap was wide enough to swallow at least twenty people, and dark enough that the end wasn't visible even with the light of the torches.
The sound of shouting made Aeria leap to her feet and rush down the corridor, forgetting all about the books. She came to a sharp halt as she gazed across the yawning gap that stood in front of them and then looked at Deni. “Well that’s gonna stop us. Unless….”
The ingenarius looked around, her eyes scanning around the space. “I wonder… does anyone see anything that might indicate a way down into that chasm or any sort of lever or other mechanism that we might use?”
Deni's eyes scanned the scene, but couldn't see anything in the rubble that would help them delve into the darkness. He turned to face Aeria and shook his head.
"I can't see a way down," he replied.
"I guess we'll have to wait for the rope teams," Joakim said and Deni gave a start. For such a tall and imposing man, he certainly could move quietly.
The Arctoan turned and strode down the corridor back towards the entrance. Deni let out an irritated sigh.
"If it's not one thing stopping us, it's-"
His words were drowned by an almighty creak as the corridor shifted. Every explorer not desperately holding onto something hit the ground and were sent sliding towards Deni and Aeria. The floor twisted and parts of the unstable ceiling rained down upon everyone trapped in the rubble.
Ignis squawked at the sudden shift, talons scrabbling for some purchase, until she was cushioned by a shield made of vines and branches.
Eventually, with an ear-splitting crack, the corridor shivered as if hit with a great impact. Then it was still.
When everything settled, the avian leapt to her feet and rushed towards the rubble separating her from her companions.
"Deni! Aeria! Are you guys alright?"
After ramming the butt of her halberd hard against the floor and setting her feet, Aeria gritted out from between her clenched teeth that she was indeed alright. Her voice was shakier than she wanted it to be, but at least she was alive.
Ignis tried to pry at some of the rubble, panicked, and pulled a few bits of the ceiling away. A pinch from Amicus disrupted her panic. The engineer turned to examine the rest of her surroundings.
The Arctoans that had been trapped on her side of the rubble were dusting themselves off and looked only a little worse for wear.
"Are any of you hurt?" The enlil inquired.
Amicus rustled before making his way towards them to check everyone over. Ignis nodded once in thanks before returning her attention to the barrier between her, her companions, and two of the Arctoans.
"I think we're all okay," one of them replied. It sounded like a young man.
Aeria tapped at the pile of rubble that blocked her pathway and raised her voice to carry. “I’m not hurt over here, but this rock is definitely not going to be easy to shift. If I could find some way to tunnel...but I doubt we have any such thing.”
Joakim appeared at Ignis' side and placed one large hand against the wall of collapsed stone. He paused for a moment as if waiting for something.
"Begin clearing the rubble," he announced in that low rumble. It was quieter than his usual talking voice, reduced to little more than a buzz, but it still carried in the confined space. "Start at the top."
As the free Arctoans joined Ignis in creating an opening, the two with Aeria muttered amongst themselves. After an awkward moment of silence, they approached the spurii.
"The velen," one of them said in an uncertain tone, "I don't see him.”
Aeria’s face turned pale and she swallowed hard. “Are you sure? Look again! He’s got to be here. He…”
She began glancing around frantically, her eyes wide. She looked as though she might be ill and her breath came in gasps as she started to tug and pull at the rocks around her. Tears began to fill her eyes up and she tried to wipe them away as she started to call Deni’s name over and over again.
The corridor shifted slightly to the side as a loud creak drowned out all other sounds. A few moments later, all was still.
“Get a move on!” Joakim barked, throwing chunks of rubble behind him. “We need to get them out of there, now!”
The spurii began to dig alongside the others, using the butt end of her halberd to help lever out larger chunks. Her face was haggard and drawn as she worked to dig and she cast her eyes around towards Ignis, looking at her companion’s face. Eyes darted over it trying to read the expression.
Ignis redoubled her efforts, using a platform generated by Amicus to lift her so she could reach chunks of rubble closer to the top. One of the Arctoans had joined her on the twig and vine lift before it floated into the air. Together they worked even the most stubborn bits of debris free. Before long their platform was too heavy and they had to be lowered so that they could dump it safely.
Slowly, the thick wall of broken stone separating the group began to shorten as everyone worked like ants to take it down one piece at a time. Despite sore fingers and bleeding hands, they continued for what must have been at least two hours until the wall was low enough for them to fit through the space at the top.
The enlil and the Arctoan perched on the wooden and vine platform peered over the half-dissembled wall, desperate to see that the others were alright. When Ignis caught sight of her friend, she had to tense all her muscles to prevent herself from jumping over the wall and rushing to her side.
“We can get you over here to check you over and figure out what to do next,” the avian offered. She climbed onto the top of the wall and hopped down, arms spreading to slow her fall. The dark fabric of her cloak billowed around her as her feathers resisted her descent. Touching down with a soft thud, Ignis straightened up and grinned in relief.
Aeria had scrambled over the top of the pile of rubble, heaving herself to the other side. She also stopped, her whole body seeming to release the tension that it had clearly stored in every fibre. She took several steps forward and actually sank to her knees in relief, just sitting still as she watched the scene unfold in front of her.
Over the course of the hours spent trying to dig through to Aeria and the two Arctoans, Joakim had been barking orders all over. A number of people cloaked in furs had entered the ruin and then left just as swiftly as they were redirected to where they were needed.
As soon as Aeria was reunited with Ignis and the two laicar ran to the rest of their number there was a brief reprieve, but Joakim barely stopped for a second.
“We need to get out of here now,” he bellowed. “We’re lucky for this place to have remained standing this long. Once we’re back on stable ground, we can look for your friend.”
As soon as most of the group were about halfway towards the exit out of the corridor, a huge clunk sounded as the ruin shifted around them once again.
“Run!” somebody shouted and the ruin became displaced. The ground roared as the ceiling began to collapse. Bodies flung themselves towards the exit, dashing over rubble as they raced against the falling ruins.
Aeria charged forward, grabbing Ignis by the hand and yanking her along. She drove herself forward, engulfed in the roar of the collapsing rubble, doing nothing but responding to the sudden danger. Her mind whirled and spun, unable to do more than work at a reptilian level. All around her, the world was crumbling. It wasn’t the first time she’d been in this situation, but it never seemed to get any easier to deal with.
She kept her hand firmly clamped around Ignis, not allowing her to slip free. There was nothing for it but to keep moving forward, so that’s precisely what she did.
Ignis squawked in surprise at the sudden trembling of the ruins. Everything happened so quickly she was already being dragged along behind Aeria when she realized two things: Deni was still missing and Amicus was no longer clinging to her.
Panic welled up in the enlil's chest as she shouted her companion's name, wrenching her hand away from Aeria to run towards the mons infans who had been jostled from his perch in all the rushing. Ignis scooped him up to her chest and turned to rejoin the escaping group but a rain of debris cut her off, blocking her way out.
Hugging the mons infans tightly, Ignis spun searching for some exit or escape. Nothing appeared and several chunks of falling stone forced her to dodge, moving towards the area where Deni had fallen.
"Aeria! Run!" She screeched, voice approaching deafening volumes to rise above the sink of the collapsing ruins.
Vines and branches sprung into existence, wrapping around her as Amicus desperately tried to protect them both. Their capsule rolled, swerved, and dove to avoid falling debris before making its way behind the debris that had initially separated the exploration party.
An ominous creaking noise sounded before a loud crack. Ignis and Amicus were falling along with a large section of ruins. The velocity of their movement pinned them to the falling mass, unable to escape. The avian clung to her companion and squeezed her eyes shut right before they crashed.
A force dragged Aeria’s view away from the disappearing Ignis.
“We’ll come back for them!” Joakim bellowed. Then he pushed her towards the exit as the rest of the team scrambled to escape the cave in.
“N-no! No! I…can’t leave her! Please!”
It was no use to protest. Joakim was twice Aeria’s size and could move her with very little effort. Eventually she just went limp in his grasp and let him pull her away from the enlil’s last location. What was the use?
Once they were a safe distance away, the urgency was lessened and the powerful Arctoan let her go. She sagged against the wall and stayed there, seemingly uncaring.
Outside, the ground shook for a few moments and then stopped. The entrance into the dome-like structure had not been affected by the collapse of the corridor beneath it, so there was still a way to access the rubble.
“We lost Greta!” a voice shouted. Two Arctoans held back another that was trying to charge into the dome as if it were his worst enemy. “We have to go back in there!”
Joakim’s eyes surveyed the spirit of the others that had managed to escape. With a heavy sigh, he lowered himself to Aeria’s height.
“You can’t save them if you get caught yourself,” he said in that deep, warm baritone. For a moment there was a dark glimmer in his blue-grey eyes, as if he was facing down an old foe he had not seen in years. “You escaped. They are going to need you, so prepare to do whatever it takes to get them back.”
With that, Joakim strode away from Aeria, barking orders to keep his distraught crew from focusing on the numbers they might have lost.
“Gather yourselves! Trist, inform Vaferis of what just happened. Tell him we’ll need his excavation team now...”
Oh Vis! Strengthen my arm and fill my soul with power for I am a Lancer and when all others fall, I stand. Aeria recited the Contigeri’s Prayer and stood, straightening her back and holding her halberd in the ‘attention’ position. There was a determined cast to her bright eyes and she took a deep breath in and let it trickle out of her mouth.
A moment later, she sprinted after Joakim. Her voice rang out, asking what she could do to help.