lright, that’s enough. We’ll take over.”
Nimbus let out a sigh of relief as he released the rope and stepped away from the cart. His muscles burned from the effort of dragging the rickety vessel over the bumps and ridges of the cave floor. Now that his arms were free of the water cart’s stubborn weight, they felt as though they were floating, suspended in the air.
The group had been trekking along for several hours now, and cart pullers had been rotated twice. It wouldn’t be long now until they were forced to stop and rest, something Nimbus was not looking forward to. The darkness before them was only punctuated by the occasional torch, leaving some of the side passages eerily obscured by shadows.
As they passed another torch, something occurred to Nimbus. “Here’s an idea: instead of just fumbling around down here, let’s just take one of…” As he lifted the torch from its holster in the cave wall, it promptly died out. “…these?”
“Don’t touch those!” Gilgamesh snapped. “The magic breaks!”
“Don’t be an idiot. Torches don’t burn forever.”
“Yeah,” Hermes added. “Those torches have perpetual casting, but it’s pretty unstable.”
Nimbus placed the torch back into its holster, but the flame didn’t return. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, it’s really simple. Well, no it’s not. Actually, I have no idea how it works.” Hermes said. “Somehow the spell recasts itself to keep going; it seems to break about a dozen laws of magic, but whatever. My magic doesn’t follow the rules either.”
“Wait, you know magic?”
“Of course I do! How else could I do this?” Hermes raised his hand and, with a surprisingly quick and graceful flourish of his fingers, sent a puff of wind dancing around his forearm, only visible via the flapping and fluttering of his sleeve.
Nimbus didn’t know what to think. Talos had mentioned that a number of people at the Sanctuary had magic, but he had never suspected Hermes. “What was that? How did you do that?”
“I dunno.” Hermes shrugged. “It’s all in the wrist or something. Most people need to concentrate to use magic, but mine seems to work like muscle memory. I guess I’m just a natural wind mage.”
“So… you wouldn’t be able to help me with my own magic, then?” asked Nimbus.
“Probably not. Methuselah explained a bit of magic theory, but I never really—”
A distant howl interrupted the conversation, causing Nimbus to jump. He picked up the pace, walking more closely alongside the cart and eyeing all the side passages warily. “They’re coming!”
“No.” Stinger muttered as he helped drag the cart along. “Too far away. It’s not for us.”
It’s not for us… Nimbus remembered when he arrived in the catacombs for the very first time. He remembered being lost, being alone, and being hunted by bloodwolves. Somewhere in those tunnels… it’s happening again.
Stinger glanced back over his shoulder into the darkness behind them, then shook his head and turned back to face the front.
“There’s a good spot to rest ahead.” Stinger announced, breaking the long silence.
Nimbus ached from the long walk, but shuddered at the thought of sleeping in corridors where bloodwolves roamed. “I can go on a bit farther.”
“We’re stopping.” It was final. “Just as soon as we cross… here.”
Suddenly, as they proceeded forward, the tunnel opened up into a massive chamber. There were only two exits, one on the far side of the room, illuminated by another torch. Between the two doorways stretched a deep chasm, spanned only by a narrow bridge of stone which divided the pit like a wall. The bridge widened towards to the bottom, making the sides sloped, too steep to climb, but not entirely vertical. Nimbus, carefully keeping a distance from the edge, peered down into the inky darkness and thought he could just make out the bottom.
“Nobody fall in.” Gilgamesh said. “If you do slip up, you’re on your own. Now, let’s try to get this cart over the gap without dumping it.”
“Hey, um, it’s not that I don’t have confidence in you, Gil, but would anyone mind taking me down from here first?” came the voice of Talos from atop the cart. Nimbus had almost forgotten he was up there.
Talos was unloaded and Gilgamesh began to help him across the bridge as Stinger and the other men carefully pulled the water cart along behind them. Nimbus and Hermes found themselves guarding the rear.
That cart barely even fits on the bridge. If they stray more than a foot or so from the center, that cart is going to plummet.
Just then, a howl, terrifyingly close, rang from behind and echoed through the chamber. Nimbus jumped, nearly stumbling off the bridge, and whirled to see a pair of bloodwolves emerging from the tunnel, jagged snarls rippling across their vicious visages. Nimbus, stepped back, careful not to step over the edge, and fumbled for his sword. His heart pounded like a stampede. Cries from the behind and another howl cued him in on another group of wolves approaching the convoy from the other side, but the cart blocked his view. They’ve got Gilgamesh: they can handle themselves. I just need to defend this side. I thought the wolves weren’t supposed to attack large groups. Lucky me.
The wolves stalked forward as Nimbus tried to prepare himself. I’ve done pretty well in previous battles, and if I can just get my lightning to work again… Nimbus pointed his weapon at the bloodwolves and tried to focus. The last time he had used magic, the energy had just come to him suddenly. Now that he was actively searching for it, he felt like he was floundering, reaching for something that just wasn’t there. He tried to emulate the mindset he was in at time; perhaps that had something to do with it. It was impossible. Fine. We’ll do this the old fashioned way. Nimbus braced himself and prepared to meet with wolves with his sword, trying (unsuccessfully) to maintain his cool.
Nimbus clenched the hilt of his weapon tightly as the first bloodwolf stepped onto the bridge. Suddenly, a strong gust of wind howled through the cavern and struck the wolf from the side, sending it toppling over the edge.
“Hermes?” Nimbus glanced over his shoulder to see the boy in a wide stance, both arms positioned in the direction the wind had blown. “Nice job. Just be careful not to—whoa!”
The next wolf rushed forward and leaped at Nimbus’ throat. He barely got his sword up in time, impaling the monster. He staggered to keep his footing as he shoved the wounded wolf off of his sword and into the pit.
There was no time to relax; more wolves appeared, creeping from the dim maw of the tunnel. Their eyes seemed to glow red in the torchlight, as though each was a portal to a battlefield of flame and death; their hackles jutted skyward like spears of a wrathful army, shaking their weapons in defiance; the harsh growls that emanated from deep within them rumbled like siege engines over rocks, stones, and the bodies of the fallen.
“We can’t stay here!” shouted Gilgamesh. “We need to get to the other side!”
Nimbus dared not look away from the approaching assailants, but he could hear the cart begin rolling again. He began to slowly back in the same direction. He tried again to use his magic. He remembered how the lightning had responded to his will, surging forward, leaping from one wolf to the next. He locked eyes with the monsters and imagined it all happening again, the flash of light, the crash of thunder, but his efforts were in vain.
A zephyr rushed over the bridge, but the lead wolf hunched down and leaned into it, maintaining its position. As soon as the wind terminated, the wolf struck, lunging forward and biting at Nimbus’ arm. Fortunately, the wolf’s teeth scraped harmlessly off Nimbus’ bracer, giving Nimbus an opportunity to kick the beast over the side of the bridge.
Why on Earth did I agree to go back into these tunnels? Every time I come out here the wildlife gets grumpy. Nimbus retreated a bit farther, but the cart had stopped moving again, presumably while Gilgamesh fought more bloodwolves. Nimbus took a quick peek backwards. Come on, we’re almost over… His thoughts were interrupted when another bloodwolf leaped at him.
His sword was too slow: he found himself wrestling with the feral creature, trying desperately not to lose his footing and fall to the floor, or worse, into the chasm. He felt a gust picking up.
“Hermes! No! Stop!” Nimbus panicked.
It was too late. The blast of air struck from the side, sending both the wolf and Nimbus tumbling into the abyss.