“I still don’t like it,” Varis grumbled, as we marched along behind the line of halfling scouts. The bright bluish shadows cast by their blackflame lanterns leapt and receded against the vast bulk of stalagmite and column, shapes seeming to flit and leap in the darkness between.
Even after a mile, I found myself darting glances to the left or right, my grip tightening on my ironwood staff. The buzz of Sera’s unease prickling along my arms and the nape of my neck did little to ease my own uncertainties. She held her Power close, her senses sharpened, spread out around us.
Ahead of us, Gilliam and Varis did not drop their hands from the hilts of their weapons, despite assurances that we were quite safe from the dangers of what the halflings called the “silent forest.”
“More like ‘dead’ than ‘silent,’” Gilliam muttered, flinching towards another blue-lit shadow in the distance, one of his swords already half-drawn.
“No,” I said. “This place is still very much alive. This cave still breathes. This feels nothing at all like the twice-dead heart of the Dymrak.”
“Water, Wind, Earth. They are all here, still dancing,” Sera said, her voice carrying the lilt of one distracted by the Power.
Silva and Aurora walked well ahead of us, in line with the scouts on their overly large spiders. The twins’ hoods were down, the shadowlight from the blackflame lanterns falling full upon them.
Under its light (shadow? It grew hard to tell which was which) they looked… different. Their hair picked up more silver than gold. Their skin shone, brighter even than it did under Matera’s full light. They both stood taller, their gait more of a glide than actual steps. Though there wasn’t enough air moving in the cave to cause a hair to stir, theirs seemed to waft, drifting whenever they moved their heads, leaning close to each other to speak, or to glance back at us as we followed.
Their eyes were what changed the most: Silva’s shone the deep blue-shot-with-silver as the dwarves’ so-called “Oracle Stones.” And Aurora’s… they flashed a deep and crystalline green, flecked with golden highlights.
“You think them beautiful,” Sera said, from slightly behind my right shoulder.
“I don’t know any man who would argue with that assessment,” I said. It did no good to lie to the girl.
“Or woman,” Gilliam said. He inclined his chin toward Ana, who’s eyes had locked on the two since they had scampered ahead of us.
“Beautiful?” she asked, diverting her gaze to the swordsman to give him a disgusted look. “I do not know what you see, but I only see deception further cloaked in deception.” Ana shook her head. “Beauty born of shadows melts away to what it truly is under the light.”
Gilliam rolled his eyes. “Now you sound like one of your orders’ stuffy old clergymen.”
The cleric sighed. “We must remember to be careful. Silva has no defenses against her own magic. The corruption comes much faster to those with magic in their blood. It was so much easier when it was just keeping her safe from the demons. Now we must worry about keeping her safe from herself.”
* * * * *
“There,” Pysk said, pointing with his riding switch to a fissure in the far wall of the cavern. It was a good half mile from our hiding place at the jumble of fallen stone columns at the edge of the Silent Forest.
Two stone walls — with a ramshackle town between them — stood between us and the lantern-lit split in the cavern’s far wall, which we were told led up into the larger caverns, three of which we would have to traverse to make it through to the far side of the mountains.
“So we just stroll up to that big iron gate and knock?” Gilliam asked. “Ask them politely if we can pass through so we can reach the far side of these mountains?”
“I seem to remember that tactic not working very well in the past,” Varis said.
“We just won’t drink anything they offer us and we should be fine,” the other warrior said with a grin.
Varis made a face, shuddering. “Beer, no. Dwarven brandy? Maybe.”
“So you’ve tried it,” Gilliam said with a knowing nod.
“On my first year in the Duke’s Mountain Guards. Had some thane’s son from Highforge in the unit. Said it was ‘the very best’ his clan had to offer.”
“I’m guessing it wasn’t?”
Varis rubbed his jaw. “Nearly chipped a tooth.”
Gilliam stifled a laugh in his glove.
“Those walls are crawling with guards,” Aurora said, peering through a small window she’d made of her thumbs and forefingers. She’d done something to the air between them, causing a wavering image to appear as if she stood no more than a dozen feet from the walls, rather than the greater part of half a mile. “There is very little cover between here and those walls. They’d see us in a matter of moments.”
“Yes” Pysk nodded, then his teeth flashed in a grin. “But they have a tendency not to look up.”