tagSci-Fi & FantasySarlene's Touch Ch. 31

Sarlene's Touch Ch. 31

byFuinimel©

"I hope you know where you're going," said Nyvara, as the three of them trod the branching passageways beneath the city.

"I know the direction," replied Zarenis, "I can feel it. This thing,,, the Presence, whatever you want to call it... it shows me images sometimes, but mostly I just sense the way I have to go. All I have to do is work out the details."

"That doesn't sound very reassuring," complained the sorceress, "how do we know it isn't lying to you?"

"It has no reason to. It wants to be released, and my demonic ancestry is the strongest link it has to this world." She didn't add that the Presence had already shown her that it had been responsible for her own birth, through a lesser demon. Since she had touched the censer, it could send her visions while she was awake, and she had experienced first hand its ability to manipulate the infernal taint in her blood, tying them together.

At least, she had now been able to gain some measure of control over the new powers in her blood. She was able to suppress all the transformations it wanted to make in her body, restoring her eyes and horns to their usual forms, and now looked as human as any tiefling should do, not like the hideous half-demon she had been at risk of becoming.

In truth, she did not know how far she could really trust the entity, but there was little doubt that following its demands was the best course of action for the time being. It said that it would bring her power, make her its primary voice in the physical world, once it was released from its prison. Given the trouble it had gone to in order to create her, that seemed at least plausible. It didn't seem to be able to act without some sort of intermediary, and it was unlikely that a better candidate existed anywhere near Haredil.

So now she, Nyvara, and the sorceress' bodyguard, Rolgor, where stalking through the tunnels under the city, looking for the key that could release the Presence. The visions it had sent of where exactly the key was, and how it was guarded, had been vague; evidently, the Presence had difficulty seeing into that part of the tunnel system. But she knew enough to be able to get there, and enough that it was obvious she would need assistance in doing so. Nyvara, who was simply mercenary, was a far better choice for that assistance than anyone Amloth could have provided, for it had also become clear that, in the long run, the drow would be her greatest rival if she wished to truly act as the Presence's chief representative on Earth.

"I can't believe," continued Nyvara, "that there are people who do this sort of thing for a living. Is it something about penetrating deep passages? This place is dusty and grimy, and if I wasn't holding a magical light, we wouldn't even be able to see anything."

"We're not adventurers," Zarenis reminded her, "we're here to get one thing, not to explore. In and out, as quickly as possible, that's the idea."

"Well, I don't see any treasure to steal, anyway, if that's what they're in it for. What kind of idiot leaves piles of gold coins lying about in a catacomb, anyway? I'm beginning to wonder whether there's anything down here at all, except dirt, smells, and scalding water from the springs."

They turned a corner. "There's that," said Zarenis.

In front of them, the corridor was choked with a vast profusion of mutated plants, springing out of the water channel that filled much of its base. The plants were greyish and blotched, unnaturally growing down here in the perfect darkness. There were tendrils that visibly writhed as they watched and buds that looked more like vicious mouths.

"Can't hack through that," said Rolgor, speaking for the first time since they had descended into the depths, "too much bad."

"A spell won't work, either," added Nyvara, "anything I could use against it would have to be strong to risk bringing the roof down. I hope this isn't your only way in."

"This is a tool of the Presence," said Zarenis, confidently, "nothing more. A sign of the encroachment of its world into ours."

"And that helps us how?"

"Because it knows its own." She strode forward, until she was right next to the edge of the vegetable barrier. The creepers waved about uncertainly, reaching for one her moment, then rearing away.

Zarenis closed her eyes, relaxing her hold on the blood that raged deep within her, letting a little more of the Presence out through her. It was less shocking than the previous times it had happened, partly because she knew what was coming, and partly because she had the transformation more under her control. Heat rose within her, and she felt her horns and fingernails lengthen. Her ankles twisted, and she felt a sharp pain above her buttocks as a growing tail pressed against her clothing.

She heard Nyvara take a sharp breath, not quite managing to hide her distaste at the tiefling's shape-shifting. When Zarenis opened her eyes, she knew that they were blood-red, and that even her skin was tinged with a reddish-purple hue. In front of her, the plants reared back, pressing themselves hard against the walls of the tunnel, opening a narrow passage between their bent stalks. It went about twenty feet into the morass, before more plants closed off any view of what lay beyond.

"I would follow very closely behind me, if I were you," she told the others.

Rolgor looked to his mistress, more uneasy about the plants than about Zarenis' demonic appearance. The sorceress looked uncertain, but, clenching her fists, stepped forward to stand immediately behind the tiefling, and then follow as she walked into the cleared passageway. The half-orc immediately followed her, although it was clear that he was gripping the haft of the axe they had found him very tightly indeed.

The plants continued to squirm, rustling against the stone walls, but, as they walked forward, those at the far end of the vegetable tunnel began to open up, revealing yet more beyond.

By the time they were twenty feet in, the mutant plants began to close behind them again, sealing off their only escape. Nyvara and Rolgor absolutely needed her now, if they were ever to escape, for Zarenis knew that there was no route to the surface beyond this point -- she would hardly have come this way if there had been. They were trapped in here, with her.

The same thought had obviously occurred to both of them, and even the muscular half-orc flinched now as tendrils began to reach out for him, stopping less than an inch from his skin. They kept very close to her after that, their bodies almost touching as they continued to walk ahead.

In fact, while it must have seemed like an eternity to the other two, Zarenis judged that they had gone only another ten feet or so before the plants continuing to open up ahead showed, not more of their own kind, but the blackness of an open corridor. Not long after that, they had passed through, and were standing on the other side, as the horrible mutated barrier closed up behind them.

The passage they were in looked no different from that on the other side, with a deep conduit for the hot spring water occupying most of its width, and a narrow walkway along one side. Zarenis paused for a moment, to allow her body to resume its normal appearance. Although she sometimes needed to allow her new demonic form to come to the surface, it was not an experience she enjoyed, and the sooner she was back in her own flesh, the better she felt.

A sudden vision sprang to her mind of a dry side passage. She knew she would find it up ahead, and that that was where she had to head next. She also felt a sense of foreboding, her senses warning her to the fact that here, beyond the protective barrier, the Presence held more sway than it did elsewhere in the mortal world, and that anything could have been attracted here by its otherworldly nature.

"I'm not sure what's here," she told the others, "but there's no reason to assume anything else will behave as quietly as those plants just did. So we will have to be careful."

"There bad smell," said Rolgor.

"This whole place is dank," pointed out Nyvara, "you'll have to get used to it."

"No, real bad smell." The half-orc hefted his axe, and moved to stand in front of the two women.

Something scuttled out of the darkness ahead, the magical light from Nyvara's wand catching on a glistening green flank. The thing was running along the side of the tunnel, not along the floor, and it was headed straight for Rolgor. His axe whirred through the air and hit the thing with a heavy thudding sound, making it emit a high-pitched screech and back off. They could all smell it now, an unpleasant rotting odour that perhaps gave some clue as to what the thing fed on.

Now that it had paused it was easier to see what it was... or at least, what it looked like, for none of the three could recall having seen anything quite like it before. It was about ten feet long, with a body that loosely resembled a caterpillar, or possibly some kind of maggot. An array of long tentacles sprouted from its head -- one of them severed and oozing pale yellow fluid. Dark, insectile eyes glittered above a wide maw filled with dagger-like teeth and a pair of bone-crushing mandibles.

The thing hissed and lunged forward again, tentacles flying around it like a shield. Rolgor swung his axe, but there were too many tentacles and one of them slapped him across the legs, spattering transparent slime as it did so. The big half-orc let out a grunt of surprise as one leg went numb, collapsing beneath him to pitch him onto the floor. Another tentacle swung by just inches above his head, but then the monster scuttled forward across the wall, now poised directly above him, tentacles waving.

Nyvara cast a spell, a bright blue spark of energy that momentarily obscured the light from her wand. It struck the creature, making it hiss in fury as it retreated a couple of feet up the wall. With a shout of rage, Rolgor reared up on his remaining good leg, swinging the axe one-handed, powerful muscles rippling beneath his tunic. The axe bit into the creature's side, spraying yellow fluid onto the blade, and the thing stumbled, half falling off the wall to crash down beside him.

Before it could recover, the half-orc gripped his axe in both hands, half-leaning against the wall to support himself, and rained down blow after blow on the thing's head until long after it had stopped moving.

He remained there, panting with exertion for a while. "Leg numb," he said, after a while, "can't move it. I not hurt... but leg bad."

"Some sort of paralysing contact poison," commented Nyvara, "whatever that is, it must secrete the stuff."

"If we find an adventurer," said Zarenis, "we can ask them what the thing is. But can you reverse the effects?"

The sorceress nodded, "it should be simple enough, with a neutralising balm. But I hope you aren't expecting the sort of powerful healing magic that can put limbs back. I'm not a priest, and there could be something worse out there."

"There's an area up ahead that's safe," Zarenis told her, "we just have to get there quickly."

Nyvara's balm was as good as she has said, and soon the three of them were headed down the tunnel again, moving a little quicker this time. The side tunnel was, as the tiefling had thought, not far ahead, and, unlike the main passage, it was entirely dry, without any conduit along the floor. It was evidently a later addition to the system, not part of the channels for the hot spring water, although its original purpose was far from clear.

Three visions sprang into Zarenis' mind in quick succession. One showed a pit, plunging down into the earth, the second a stone archway carved with runes. The third image was blurred, unclear, a murky darkness that she couldn't understand, but accompanied by a flash of almost painful heat. She didn't have time to make more sense of it, hopefully all would become clear when they got nearer to whatever it was.

The trio quickly moved down the side-passage, Nyvara and Rolgor glancing behind them from time to time to ensure that nothing was following.

"Stop!" shouted Zarenis suddenly, holding out her hands to grip the sides of the narrow tunnel as Nyvara almost cannoned into her.

"What now?" snapped the sorceress, irritated, and clearly a little out of her depth.

"There's a pit just ahead. The entire floor drops away. There's a narrow edge along one side, but we have to move carefully."

"Is there a breeze?" asked Nyvara, and Zarenis had to agree that there was, although she had not noticed it until now. It was cold, at odds with the warm atmosphere they had encountered so far down here.

"Smells wrong," said Rolgor, "a bad wind."

Zarenis nodded, but said nothing; her sense of smell was obviously not as keen as the half-orc's. "We need a good look ahead with that wand of yours," she told Nyvara, "so we can see where the pit is."

The wind grew stronger as they moved ahead, until they stood at the lip of a sudden chasm where the floor simply dropped away into the lightless depths. The air poured out of the gap, freezing cold and clutching at their clothes and hair. A narrow ledge just eight inches wide wound round one edge of the gap, with no clear hand-holds in the wall.

"It's otherworldly," said Nyvara, "it has to be. There's no way wind could come from down there, otherwise, and, if it did, it wouldn't be this cold. Not next to volcanic springs."

"Don't fall in, then," said Zarenis wryly, "follow me carefully as I walk along the ledge. There's a false step about half way along, make sure you don't step on it -- I'll warn you when we get to it."

The journey was difficult, and slow-going, but it was only about twenty feet, so it probably seemed to take longer than it actually did. Eventually, they reached the other side, Nyvara breathing heavily, and the half-orc looking uncharacteristically pale. Being down here was not a pleasant experience, and that pit was not going to stop any more of those wall-climbing creatures that might be down here.

"We should come to an archway," Zarenis told them, "it's magically warded, but not by the Presence. It was put here a long time ago, by the adventurers that last tried to seal the Presence in here, and used it to protect what we're now after. If we get past the arch, we'll be safe from any other infernal creations, but we will also lose some of my ability to sense what is ahead."

This, in fact, was what she really needed Nyvara for. She could not hope to overcome the magical wards, or anything similar that might lie beyond. Although, as it turned out, the monster they had already encountered was probably something she would have had difficulty tackling on her own, so it seemed all of them were needed. She hoped that thinking like that wasn't making her too much like adventurers, with their little bands that spent their days delving into old ruins in search of treasure and glory... that was no way for anyone to live.

──◊── Four hundred years ago

"It isn't enough."

Romas turned to look at the elven archer, frowning. "What do you mean, it isn't enough?" the big warrior asked, "Oshanti said her wards were almost impenetrable."

The Jalibian magician nodded, "they are. There are multiple layers of protection on the arch, I don't see how we could possibly make them stronger. Nothing can get through them."

The elf brushed his long blond hair away from his face, looking slightly embarrassed, "I hate to say this... but you're thinking like a human."

"Well, that's because I am human. What's your point?"

"Will the wards still be so strong in a hundred years time? In two hundred? Five hundred? To an elf, that's just a few generations. Will your wards last that long?"

She sighed, "no... no, perhaps not. But what else can we do? With the pit guarding the approach, I don't see how we could have found anywhere better, and nothing's ever permanent."

"We could leave a guard down here."

"For five hundred years?" asked Romas, "how is that going to work? With the enemies we've made among the Presence's supporters, I don't think we can even stay in the city for much longer."

"I think I see what he means," said Sister Yarona, "a guardian need not be human,"

"Exactly," replied Carandel, "we leave something that doesn't need to eat or sleep. A final protection in case, the gods forbid, some day someone breaks through the wards and finds this sceptre. Because we already know that we can't destroy the thing ourselves, and the Presence will recover, given time, and send somebody down here, perhaps centuries from now, and they will, eventually, get through Oshanti's wards."

"The problem," said Yarona, crossing her arms, and looking intently at the elf, "is how exactly we are supposed to summon something to do that. I am a cleric of the Sun God, and we're underground."

"There must be a ceremony," said the elf, looking a little defensive, "something you can do. Or Oshanti can create something magical."

"If you're thinking of a golem," said the magician, "I really don't think that's an option in the time we have available."

"And to summon something, I would need candles, a great fire, something to represent the Sun God," agreed Yarona, "we haven't got that sort of equipment down here. Summoning ceremonies aren't that simple."

"Is there no other way of contacting the Sun God?" asked Romas, "it's not as if we're trying to do something that simply benefits ourselves."

"Not directly, no. You need fire and light."

"Wait..." said Oshanti, looking up, her dark eyes shining with a sudden idea, "what do you mean, 'not directly'?"

──◊──

The arch turned out to be instantly recognisable; the past adventurers had carved runes all around it, and marked it with sigils whose paint was so old that it was peeling away, but had nonetheless stained the stone behind it. The sigils, apparently, were not much of a problem, and perhaps their fading with time was part of why the Presence was growing stronger recently. But it took Nyvara some time to neutralise the runic wards, carved so solidly into the stone that they could easily have stood for centuries more.

But succeed she eventually did, and the trio stepped through to the far side, another corridor, this one sloping slightly downwards. As soon as she did so, however, Zarenis felt the world spin around her, and she had to grab onto the wall to support herself. It wasn't just the sudden dislocation from the Presence... she could feel something else.

"Are you all right?" asked Nyvara. She didn't sound concerned, or at least not for the tiefling's wellbeing. She was more worried, no doubt, about her ability to get out again.

"Yes," said Zarenis, steadying herself. Once the initial shock of the transition was over, it no longer seemed so bad. "But there is something here, something watching us, and it isn't good. It feels like a fire... a burning light, and its somewhere up ahead. Nothing to do with the Presence, quite the reverse. I can't read its mind, but I can feel it probing us, trying to see what we are. The old adventurers... they left something here, something to protect what we're looking for, and something a good deal worse than the barrier we've just passed."

"When you say it's not good, you don't mean its infernal, do you?" asked the sorceress, evidently already guessing the answer.

"No, I mean that it isn't good for us. I've never felt anything like it. I'm still new to this... but I think it could be celestial."

"Celestial is not good?" asked Rolgor, looking a little confused.

"Not when its protecting something we want to steal, no," said Nyvara, "but how is that even possible? What did they do, build a shrine down here to summon an angel of Pardror? How much time did they have?"

"I have no idea," said Zarenis, irritated that she was being questioned, "but there is something here. And it has already sensed us. You can ask it what it is and how it got here when you meet it -- because, believe me, we are going to meet it."

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