ilgamesh struck the battered shield three times, then stepped back and waited. There was no response, only the quiet crackle of a torch the convoy had passed moments ago, accompanied by the breathing and shuffling of exhausted men. The water cart, which barely fit between the narrow confines of the tunnel walls, was blocking most of the torchlight from behind, and it was difficult to make out the details of the strange door that severed the passage. The only obvious feature was the worn shield that hung directly in the center of the door, reflecting what little light there was.
Nimbus shifted his weight from one leg to the other, then back again. He’d been walking for hours, and the very idea that he finally stood at the Vinefront’s threshold seemed unreal. He knew he should be feeling relieved, but he wasn’t. On the contrary, he felt more unnerved than ever, stealing glances over his shoulder, listening for the sounds of the bloodwolves that had haunted the journey. As long as he was on this side of the door, it seemed like something, anything was bound to go wrong.
“Try again?” he suggested to Gilgamesh.
“I know what I’m doing.” Gilgamesh muttered, giving the shield a few more raps with the handle of his ax.
Within moments footsteps were heard on the stone floor beyond the barrier, and, with a rustle, the door slid open on hinges. Beyond the portal, the tunnel spilled out into a huge chamber, one even larger than the Sanctuary’s main cavern. Unlike the rest of the tunnels, this was clearly a natural cave. Stalactites studded the ceiling over fifty feet above the convoy’s heads; in places, their opposing counterparts, stalagmites, jutted upwards to meet them, and on a few occasions the two had combined into vast columns. These stalwart structures, along with the walls, were clothed in a tangle of vines that wrapped their ways upwards and hung from the ceiling. At the base of the chamber a couple small huts had been constructed from vines and wood. All this was illuminated dimly by the bioluminescence of large, teal mushrooms that dotted the entire chamber.
So shocked was Nimbus by this massive spectacle, he nearly forgot to acknowledge the man who had let them in. The fellow held the door, which the light revealed to be a slab of vines, thickly woven together with various bits of metal and armor, and ushered them in. When they were all through, he returned the door to its closed position and barred it with a pole that slid through the woven vines and into a hole in the wall. He turned to face them.
“Stinger!” He smiled. “I didn’t see you there! Welcome back!”
“It’s good to see you!” As the man scanned the group, his smile faltered. “I thought Enkidu was coming straight back with the convoy, though. Is he injured?”
No-one spoke. The mood shift was palpable.
“Ah, he’s… He’s not…”
“He’s gone.” said Stinger. “I’m sorry.”
“Just him or…”
“There were others. It was the Ravager. If I had been there…” Stinger clenched his fist as he trailed off, then regained his composure. “Gilgamesh has the names.” He turned back to the group. “I’ll take Talos to Witte. Stow the water.”
In the next few moments, Talos was helped down from the top of the cart. Stinger helped him hobble off in the direction of one of the huts, while Gilgamesh spoke to the man who had greeted them. Some of the convoy guards dragged the water cart away, and the remaining people, including Hermes, dispersed.
Well, here I am. Now what? Nimbus surveyed the cavern again. Eventually his gaze fell over Stinger and Talos, still shuffling along. I guess I have to meet Witte sometime; it might as well be now. Nimbus hurried to catch up.
The hut was simple in design. A few wooden beams composed a rough framework over which a covering of vines was stretched. The blue light glowed through the cracks, and a drape of dangling vines loosely covered the doorway.
“Witte?” Stinger called.
A sudden cascade of thuds follow by a fumbling noise was the initial response, then, “Yes, yes, come in!”
Stinger brushed the vines aside as he and Talos stepped in with Nimbus close behind.
The central feature of the hut was a wooden table with one of the blue, glowing fungi mounted on it. A crude mattress of woven vines lay in one corner, and a pitcher of water sat in another. The table was covered in notes scrawled on torn leaves of paper, and at least a dozen books (where did they come from?) were strewn across the floor, an issue which the hut’s resident was hastily trying to rectify.
“Whoa,” said Talos. “Nice place.”
“Yes, relatively speaking, it is rather posh.” said the woman, Witte, as she placed the books on the table. “Pardon the mess. These were stacked tidily, but I’m afraid I displaced them when your arrival startled me. Now…” Witte placed the last book on the table, took a seat on her stool, straightened her tricorn hat, and looked up at her visitors. “Stinger!” In an instant she stood up again, circumvented the table, and threw her arms around Stinger, which was somewhat awkward because he was still supporting Talos. “It’s been so long! Are you alright? How long will you be staying?”
Stinger stepped back, extricating himself. “I’m fine. I won’t be staying long. I only came because I was needed, and I have someone who needs your help.” Stinger gestured to Talos.
“Uh, yep, that’s me.” Talos pushed away from Stinger to stand on his own. “I’m Talos, and you must be Witte, the fine lady who I’ve heard just… so many good things about.”
“Um… yes. I did answer to that name earlier, so that’s not a difficult deduction… What is your predicament, precisely?”
“Oh, well, I’ve got some burns and some pains that Methuselah couldn’t figure out.” Talos said nonchalantly. “I mean, I can deal with it, but I thought, you know, it might be a good idea to have a check up, just in case.”
“Your legs are visibly shaking from the stress of standing.”
“What? No! I just… need to… relieve myself. Yes. I just need to go and uh… I need to sit down.” With a groan and a wince, Talos lowered himself to the floor.
“My word…” Witte snatched a quill and a partially empty book, a journal, off the table. “Alright, let’s start with the basics: what caused your affliction?”
Witte’s eyes widened. “Lightning? Down here?”
“Yeah, my friend here has a magical sword. I tried to pick it up, but it—”
Witte turned immediately towards Nimbus. “A magical sword? May I have a look? Is it only the sword, or do you know personally do magic? Do you recall where you learned magic?”
“Um…” Nimbus said, “Only I can touch my sword without getting shocked, and I don’t really know about that other stuff…”
Talos cleared his throat.
“Aha! So the sword has a cognitus defense!” Witte exclaimed. “Implements of that magical caliber are not common down here!” She crouched to take a closer look at the blade that hung at Nimbus’ side. “Did you know there was actually a counter-spell in development by the Decorian Mages’ Guild? They were working on a pair of gloves that could safely handle items enchanted with cognitus defense. The project was almost complete, but the prototype gloves and all the magician’s notes were stolen. Of course, that was a few years ago; the gloves have probably been recovered by now.”
“How on earth do you know all this? Did you not lose your memory?” said Nimbus.
“Oh, I did indeed, but these…” Witte tapped the cover of a book lying on her desk. “…did not.”
Talos cleared his throat again.
“You have a patient…” said Nimbus.
“Ah,” Witte reluctantly turned away. “We’ll talk more about this later. You had better leave, Nimbus. I’ll take a look at your friend, Gallows.”
“Talos.” said Talos.
“Yes, of course.”
Nimbus, seeing that Stinger had already left, excused himself from the hut.
Nimbus took a deep breath and stared out into the gigantic cavern. As he gazed at the massive rock formations, he noticed, for the first time, men crawling up them, yanking and hacking at vines with old weapons, and tossing them down to the ground. They were harvesting the vines.
“You have potential.”
Nimbus turned to face the voice.
“I’ve seen your magic.” said Stinger. “These people need protectors. You could be one.”
“Have you not been paying attention? I’m the one who needs protection. My magic doesn’t work.”
“You don’t know how it works.” Stinger corrected. “Witte will help.”
“Even so, the magic drains me, and I’m not a great fighter without it. You know this: you rescued me twice.”
“I know.” Stinger pointed towards a larger, tent-like hut nestled between two columns. “The sleeping quarters is over there.”
Nimbus suddenly remembered how tired he was. His legs ached like he’d walked a hundred miles, which he may have; he realized that his eyes weren’t focused properly.
“Rest well.” said Stinger. “We’re sparring tomorrow.”