We were fortunate, that the winds swirling through the vast cavern carried the smoke from the still-smoldering platform at the base of the metal framework away from us as we made our way down the ladder.
It was definitely dwarven work: despite looking to be quite old from the weathering, it was just as sturdy as the day it was forged and hammered into place down the sheer cliff’s face.
About half the way down, we could see the shadowy mass looming below us. More mushrooms, even larger than those we’d seen as the dwarves’ prisoners, spread out along the floor of the cavern as far as wee could see into the gloom.
The elevator’s platform was a burnt and smoldering ruin, many of the metal parts having softened and sagged under the intensity of the flames. This included those of another of the steam-driven carriages. Even if we could have put it in working order, it was turned the wrong direction, and the mechanisms to rotate the platform had oozed and fused together.
Sera looked around, her gaze distant. She ran her fingers along paths in the air, and when I squinted, I could barely make out wispy strands floating in place, fading here and there.
“Energy,” she said, “an immense amount of it, pulled together very quickly.” She frowned, clucking her tongue and shaking her head. “Badly woven, threads snapped… it is no wonder it burned so hot. It can not have held together for more than a moment. Such a waste.”
“Old Magic,” Aurora said. “Not so neatly refined as your Essence manipulation, and entirely drawn from the world’s Energeist.”
“This reeks of wizardry,” Ana agreed. “But something is not right… The air should be positively unbreathable with the amount of corrupted magic that’s been thrown about, and yet…”
“He makes aid of the Eye,” Silva said. “It makes bigger of a tiny amount of magic.” She clenched her left hand into a fist, staring intently at the golden-veined red stone entwined in her bracer. “This is not what I would have it to do.”
What could we do, but walk? We followed the iron paths laid out for the carriages, into the great and looming fungal forest. Our way was not left to darkness. Tall posts of squared-off fungal wood were sunk into the slightly raised bed upon which the iron rails were laid, a small dark metal lamp hanging from a cross-piece. Inside each, a dark and shivering wisp of blackflame danced upon a twisted taper, the shadowlight illuminating an area about equal to that of a regular torch. These were placed, perhaps every forty or fifty paces.
“Most ingenious,” Varis murmured. “It doesn’t need refilling, since it doesn’t actually consume any sort of fuel.”
“It is still unnatural,” Ana grumbled.
We kept a brisk pace, our steps quicker in the gaps between the pools of shadowlight. Appropriate lighting, I thought, for a forest however many hundreds of feet below ground we were. And yet, despite Ana’s convictions to the contrary, backwards though it may have felt, it did not strike me as anything beyond the bounds of the natural world.
“There are no sounds,” the young cleric whispered to me. “It cannot be a forest without…. Sounds. Bird calls. That sort of thing.” She waved a hand at the dark stalks rising to either side of the iron rails, and weird, diffused shadows of blueish light flickered over and through the fungal trunks.
“Quiet means no creatures are about,” Varis said.
“Or would you prefer a pack of giant spiders to — ” Gilliam asked.
Gilliam cut short his jibe, and we turned to see Silva, a hand held up in a closed fist, one delicately pointed ear cocked towards the dark stalks to our left. She slipped her other hand into the pouch at her belt, bringing froth the unevenly-cut silvery-veined blue stone.
Aurora’s eyes narrowed, and she sucked in a sharp breath, but Silva cut her off with a curt shake of her head.
“Janami bhoh,” Silva murmured, her tone somewhat warmer than her manner, and some of the tension eased from her golden-eyed twin’s shoulders. The shrike sighed.
Silva brought the stone up before her, and breathed ever so slightly over the largest of the facets. The veins within the blue stone began to gleam, and their reflection in her silvery eyes looked like the shimmering of moonlight on ripples in a lake. Though we were miles away from the smoldering ruins of the elevator and the drafts put off by the heated air, loose strands of hair danced about Silva’s face in as if in a breeze. She brought her free hand up, the sleeve of her gown fluttering despite the absence of any wind, and she pointed, into the woods.
“Kati?” Aurora scanned the shadows between the thick fungal stalks, but evidently, her golden eyes were not as keen as whatever magic augmented her sister’s vision.
“Dvah. Sapt. Trayodazha” Silva’s eyes grew wider with each word, which I knew to be numbers. Ever increasing numbers.
“Too many!” the shrike hissed, and snatched the siren by the arm, giving her sister a tug to send her stumbling into motion. She glanced back at the rest of us before steadying Silva by the elbow, their strides lengthening, perfectly matched. “Run!”
“I was kidding!” Gilliam said, as he grabbed Ana’s wrist and urged her along beside him at a sprint.
I had no desire to look back at the chittering, clattering horde of spiders that clambered through the fungal woods behind us.