ethuselah spoke in low tones. Normally the voice of an old man, being so quiet, would never carry through such a large group of people, but in the deep, forlorn silence, every word was distinct and clear. It seemed that everyone in the entire Sanctuary (Nimbus guessed there were about 40 in total) had gathered to pay their respects. Though Methuselah spoke at length about their deceased allies, Nimbus’ wasn’t closely listening. It wasn’t that the gravity of the situation evaded Nimbus, rather that his mind was still working over the same questions it had begun contemplating last night.
I don’t know how my magic works. If I could summon lightning at any time, it would be unbelievably useful, but… Nimbus thought of the bloodwolves; he remembered their eyes glowing in the dark; he shuddered as he imagined their teeth at his throat. I told myself I was never going back into those tunnels.
Methuselah had stopped speaking, and Gilgamesh stepped forward to say something about Enkidu. As he spoke, he showed no sign of the previous night’s rage, only regret.
Gilgamesh wouldn’t approve, of course. He does have a point. I shouldn’t just sit in here leeching off the vines and water others risk their lives for. I should at least help carry water. If I knew how to use lightning, fetching it might be fairly safe, but… Nimbus really didn’t want to be in the caves for any extended period of time. How long is the trek to the Vinefront?
No matter how he tried to focus on the funeral, Nimbus’ mind repeatedly returned to these questions until the grim rite came to a close.
“Hold up, Shellfish.” Gilgamesh interrupted Nimbus’ thoughts as he wandered through the tunnels of the Sanctuary.
Gilgamesh locked his gaze on a point somewhere to Nimbus’ left as he spoke, refusing to make eye contact. “We need to send the convoy back with water either today or tomorrow. Thanks to the recent incident, we don’t have enough guards. You wanna take another stab at being useful?”
“How could I resist such an offer?”
Gilgamesh rolled his eyes. “Forget it.” He stalked onward.
Well, I guess that settles that. Nimbus stood a moment, feeling a tad bit guilty about how he had handled the situation. Finally, he resumed meandering along the tunnel towards the main chamber. Upon his arrival, he was unexpectedly greeted.
“Hey, Nimbus, over here!”
Nimbus turned to see Talos being carried along on some sort of makeshift, wooden stretcher.
“Just set me down here, will you? This is a good spot.” Talos’ assistants carefully placed the stretcher on the ground and departed. “What’s up, Nimbus? Mind sitting down so you don’t loom so much?”
Nimbus took a seat on the floor. “Look, Talos, I’m really sorry…”
“Ah, it wasn’t your fault, no matter what Gil says.”
“Gil—I mean… Gilgamesh talked to you about me?”
“He didn’t need to. I just know that if he didn’t blame you, he’d have to blame himself.”
“What do you mean?”
“He didn’t need to bring me along. He does solo water runs all the time: keeps him sane. He just invited me for my sterling personality and to lower the risk, for your sake.”
“Oh… So, how are you recovering?”
Talos shrugged. “A bit better. My burns should heal up, but I’ve still got a couple unexplained pains here and there.”
“I’ll be fine.” Talos made a slight gesture with his arm, as though to wave off the concern. “They’re taking me to the Vinefront. There’s a better healer there.”
“They’re transporting you like this?”
“We’ll rig something up. It’ll work out. Are you coming along?”
“Uh, I don’t know.” said Nimbus, who was still feeling slightly ashamed about dismissing it so quickly earlier. “Methuselah said someone at the Vinefront might be able to help me with my magic.”
Talos nodded as best he could. “Certainly. We could really use magic like yours, and it’d be good to get to know the Vinefront. You might even decide you’d rather stay there; it’s nice.”
Nimbus pondered that. He knew he should try and help out these people the best he could if he was going to remain in their community. He knew that learning his magic now would be invaluable to himself no matter what he chose to do in the future. Furthermore, if he had known how his magic worked in the first place, Talos wouldn’t be in this position. Was his only reason to remain at the Sanctuary fear?
“Yeah,” Nimbus said, “I guess I should tag along.”
Nimbus paced nervously, stopping periodically to examine the pommel of his sword or the fine plates of his gauntlet in detail. It had been only yesterday that he agreed to join the convoy guards, and now they were on the verge of embarking. He’d been in the tunnels before, but now that he knew what was out there, it was more difficult to set aside his fears. He would have enjoyed a conversation to distract himself, but he didn’t know most of the guards, and he didn’t want to speak to Gilgamesh. Suddenly, however, someone familiar approached the group.
“Stinger?” Nimbus said.
“Hm?” Stinger was still wearing the same leather hunting outfit in which Nimbus had last seen him, scraped and torn and generally looking as though it had been dragged through one-hundred miles of thorns. “Nimbus, right?”
A moment passed. Stinger inspected his bow.
“So…” Nimbus said, “I don’t think I thanked you properly for saving me earlier…”
“Don’t mention it.” Stinger drew his bow, testing the tension.
“Right… what have you been up to?”
Another moment passed in silence.
“You’re coming along, then?”
Stinger let out a sigh and lowered his bow to his side. “Yeah, I heard they needed more guys, so here I am. Any other questions?”
“Sting!” Suddenly, Hermes appeared. “There you are! I’ve been looking for you!”
“Hey, Hermes. Are you well?” said Stinger.
“I’m coming with the convoy!”
“Absolutely not.” Stinger retorted adamantly.
“Methuselah said I could!”
“Methuselah said—” Stinger clenched his fist and let out his breath. “Wait here.” He marched off to the center of the chamber where Methuselah was sitting with the dirt pile and initiated a hushed conversation.
Hermes, seemingly unfazed, turned to Nimbus. “You’re coming too, huh?”
“It seems so.”
“Great! I can’t wait to get out of here! You know, I’ve never seen the Vinefront.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I dunno. Thirty months? I don’t keep track.”
“But you’ve never been to the Vinefront?”
Hermes shrugged. “They don’t let me out of the Sanctuary. Well, they’ve let me out a few times.”
“Actually, I snuck out those times. They didn’t actually let me go.”
Nimbus didn’t like the sound of that. He remembered what Methuselah had said about bloodwolves picking off stragglers. If Hermes didn’t stay with the group… “I’m sure they just don’t want you to get hurt.”
“And that’s nice, but seriously, it’s been over two years. Besides, me? Get hurt? No way.”
Well this kid is confident.
Stinger marched back and glowered at Hermes. “Listen: if you wander, dawdle, run ahead, or otherwise move beyond five paces of the group, I will break your leg, and you will ride the rest of the way to the Vinefront with Talos. Agreed?”
“Good.” Stinger looked around. “Speaking of Talos, where is he? It’s time to move out.”
The convoy shambled along through the darkness. In the front, two men with whom Nimbus was not familiar plodded along. Just behind them came Gilgamesh and a few others, schlepping the cart which was now filled with water. The only thing that kept the water from leaking out were the hundreds of tiny vines that had been crammed into the cracks and crevices, along with some sort of paste that was presumably also made with some part of the vine plant. A lid of sorts had been constructed for the cart, and Talos lay atop it on a thin green mat woven from vines. Behind walked Hermes, Stinger, and Nimbus himself.
Nimbus tried not to think about where they were, about the bloodwolves that might lurk down shadowed passages, about the enigmatic Alphabeast he’d been told of, and especially not about the fact that they would have to sleep in these tunnels. He had learned that the journey would take from two to three days, and was feeling a lot less comfortable with the idea than he was when Talos had first convinced him. He might have tried to pass the time via conversation, but Gilgamesh was out of the question, Talos was asleep (somehow), and Stinger was already holding up his own meager part of a conversation with Hermes. He could have tried to start a conversation with some of the men he didn’t know, but he simply didn’t feel up for dealing with any new personalities at the moment.
And so the convoy continued for an hour or so without much incident. The conversation between Hermes and Stinger dwindled, and before long the clank of Gilgamesh’s spiked boots, the clink of Nimbus’ armor, and the creak and rumble of the cart wheels were the only sounds that accompanied them on their journey through the dark and twisting tunnels, silent travelers on what felt like an infinite voyage.