In the Deep

Boots crashing hard against the tunnel floor sent echoes a long way ahead of them. Aennia tried her best not to show her worry about revealing her presence to their enemies. It was time for her to be a fearless leader. Her steely composure did not spread to her troops, they were all terrified of what would be waiting for them in the dark. Captain Aennia of the Guards of Shesh’Ennore let her pale white hair flow freely as she took off her helmet. A proud Ashen Elf of five feet, she was both tall and well-built for her race.

 

“Wardens of Shesh’Ennore,” called Aennia, just loud enough for everyone to hear.

 

Aennia made a dramatic gesture with her left arm, the rest of the guards stopped immediately. Luckily, she had recognized the way the tunnels changed, and by her estimate they would soon reach the Shrine of Light. Another gesture sent her best friend, Virion, ahead as a scout. They watched him disappear around the bend in total silence. He could move like a cat and he was the only one not wearing their ‘traditional’ scale-mail armor. She looked down at her feet only to slightly scoff at the tarnished and clunky bands of metal strapped around her. If it had not been a gift from the dwarves, it would have been tossed aside years ago.

 

Aennia's ears pricked up, while she slowly became aware of a small spot of blood on her dirty tabard. A short burst of sound pierced the silence, it was a flute from around the corner signaling the ‘all clear’. There was a sigh of relief from each guard.

 

“Those creatures haven’t defiled it yet, let that be a small mercy in this dark time,” said Merin as his black eyes seemed to pierce the darkness ahead of them.

 

He had been one of Aennia’s closest friends and one of her most valued warriors. In her opinion he was one of the greatest warriors of the Guards of Shesh’Ennore.  

 

Yet another gesture sent the troops moving forward and around the bend. Virion was sitting at a bench outside the Shrine of Light, a small stone structure with stone doors hewn out of the rough rock. They were small sanctuaries and wayshrines for Aennia’s people. Last time they had been too late and ended up walking straight into a slaughter – fifteen of her guards, and friends, had paid the price.

 

“Remember Glowing Rock?” Virion asked sharply.

 

“Remember? It was only two weeks ago!” Aennia replied through gritted teeth.

 

“I am only bringing it up because I want to avoid another massacre, as do you I'm sure,” Virion tried to sound humble, lowering his eyes.

 

There was never going to be a massacre like that again, not on her watch – but she wanted to fight for it, earn it. However she felt inclined to listen to Virion, since he had saved her life there, like always.

 

“What do you suggest?” asked Aennia.

 

“We could ask for guidance- ” Virion was cut off.

 

“Guidance?” Merin roared, startling everyone.

 

Aennia gave him a stern look as she tried to calm the others down.

 

“You are talking about magic, deep magic – a fool’s trade,” he continued in a lowered voice.

 

“I am only asking our captain to consider all our options. Asking the Spirits for guidance, what harm could it do?” Virion spoke directly to Merin now.

 

Aennia zoned out their continued bickering. She had heard enough and decided to approach the Shrine doors to open them. The sporadic fumes and volcanic outbursts meant that everything was covered in a thin layer of ash, including the floor. She was sure that no one had been here for a week at least.

 

“What harm could a bit of guidance do?” she thought to herself.

 

“Alright, there are no Yuxa vermin here, take your time to honor the Spirits. Ask for guidance if it pleases you,” Aennia told the guards.

 

They reacted to her command, but were clearly hesitant to enter and very jittery.

 

“I’ll have to set an example then,” said Aennia to herself, visibly annoyed by the lack of enthusiasm.

 

She knelt down at the altar, before the only real source of light in the Deep tunnel. Spirit’s Flame they called it, sacred to her people, but Aennia knew that the ever-burning blue flame was just an alchemical trick. That was all it ever was, the Deep Magic – tricks and bad deals. All the other guards took their time to pray, so Aennia did the same. It couldn’t hurt, surely?

 

A small tremor rolled under their feet, followed by a deep rumble through the entire cave structure. Well-used to living inside a volcanic mountain cave the entire troop crouched into their safety positions. Their heads tucked between their legs while they waited for more tremors, it was quiet. Suddenly. an overwhelming stench hit Aennia, she could hear retching, and her eyes teared up almost immediately. Occasionally, the volcanic rock would release clouds of poisonous fumes.

 

“Everyone, medicines – NOW!” she managed to yell between heaving and gasping for air.

 

Panicking and wheezing, her troops split out from the Shrine of Light, going out in all directions. She had a sinking feeling in her stomach, but there was nothing else to do right now but fumble for the medicinal herbs in the leather pouch attached to her belt. The confusion continued for another few moments.

 

A cascade of strange sounds made Aennia focus again. A hiss, a shout and someone gurgling loudly. Opening her eyes, a large reptilian form came into view.

 

“Wardens! The Yuxa are here, fight for Shesh’Ennore!” she shouted as confidently as she could.

 

Before her was an adult sized Yuxa, a snakelike body coiled up while it still balanced on its long, lean arms. It wore the bones of her fellow elves as decorations. Aennia quickly unsheathed her sword to fight off the Yuxas claws. In the corner of her eye she could see the youngest of her troops being ripped apart by three smaller Yuxa.

 

“We are overrun, again,” thought Aennia, while remembering Glowing Rock, and how they had refused to surrender.

 

“Wardens, to the Shrine! Virion, Merin – to me!”

 

Virion and Merin rushed to her side, warding off the advancing Yuxa. Out of the thirty guards she had brought with her, only fifteen had managed to slip through the enemy's line and into the Shrine.

 

“Are you ready? Push them off and we will barricade the door,” Aennia told the two fighting alongside her.

 

“Go,” the three of them still standing in the doorway leapt back and grabbed the door. From behind the line of hissing foes grabbing at the door, there was a menacing voice.

 

“Vermin!”

 

After what seemed like an eternity of struggle, the door snapped shut. A loud echo burst throughout the small shrine, then there was quiet. The sound of claws against stone continued as Aennia attempted to catch her breath. Without her noticing, most of the other guards had helped them close and bar the door. They were all piled together, wounded, winded but safe.

 

This was a small reprieve for Aennia, who was forced to drown out the dying screams of the ones she had left behind that now pierced the silence of the Shrine. What could she do?

 

“Take it, take the tribute and defeat them!” urged Virion.

 

In all of Shesh’Ennore shrines were required to house sources of Deep Magic by tradition, Aennia knew that Virion was pushing her towards the elixir stored away in the tribute chest.

 

“Don’t be a coward, Virion – we will take as many as we can and die in glorious battle!” Merin countered.

 

“Stop being so close minded. We are faithful to the Spirits, they will honor us if we ask,” Virion replied calmly.

 

Aennia knew that if she did nothing, they would all die. And if they let themselves be killed, Shesh’Ennores defenses would be diminished. Who knew how many other dangers lurked in these tunnels? The Yuxa raiding party was enough to defeat them – twice. Action plans raced through the commander's mind, when Virion spoke out again.

 

“The tribute is an Elixir of Power, Eorlith brewed it herself – I know it. We are trapped here, let me take it and we will defeat them!”

 

“And what are the costs?” asked Merin.

 

He had positioned himself defiantly between Virion and the chest. Aennia felt those words like a knife in the gut.

 

“Costs?” she mumbled.

 

This was her fight, her fault – if anyone should pay the costs it should be her. Besides, she had heard the only side effects were fatigue and aches. Almost instinctively her hand went for the lid of the tribute chest, but Merin was faster than her, holding the lid firmly closed.

 

“Is this the plan, Merin – disobeying me as we face defeat?” asked Aennia with a voice as calm as could be, looking at him steadily. He reluctantly removed his hand. No longer acting in impulse, Aennia made a conscious decision and opened the lid. Placed neatly inside the chest was a small quartz flask filled with glowing orange fluid along with some other trinkets. She grabbed it and closed her eyes.

 

“One sip will be enough,” thought Aennia.

 

It tasted like the purest spring water, fresh, cold. Immediately after swallowing, there was a voice in her head. It felt like something that did not belong there had forced its way inside her.

 

“Breathe, elf – you are safe.”

 

A presence, speaking to her, whispering dark things. She opened her eyes again; her troops were gathered around her. The light from the flame that illuminated the Shrine had lost its ability to comfort – it seemed menacing, wrong.

 

The whisper grew into a scream and Aennia felt a surge through her body ending up in her right hand. Wisdom from ancient songs and long-gone voices were woven inside the still expanding scream. She felt her comrades’ fear, but her own was now long gone, taken away by the voices. The screams faded, as they left, clarity came to her.

 

“I will break the barricade and hold them off,” she said looking at the weary troop.

 

“You will all, no exceptions, run as fast as you can back home – do not wait for me.”

 

Virion had a look of pride upon him, Merin one of uncertainty. There was no time to lose, the whisper returned:

 

“Go!”

 

Faster than she herself thought possible, Aennia kicked open the Shrine doors. Like a whirlwind of pale white hair and blades, she pushed the waiting Yuxa back. They retreated quickly out of fear of losing arms or hands to the wild warrior hacking away at them.

 

Aennia had nothing as simple as rage or adrenaline guiding her, the dark gift of the Deep was insight.

 

The guards were slipping away quickly from behind her, back to where they came from. Even though everything had seemed lost, they were now free to retreat back to Shesh’Ennore.

 

“Everyone is out, good luck,” said Virion. He touched her shoulder lightly before leaving with the other guards.

 

“Run!”

 

She turned around and ran. Over the pounding of her long quick strides, she could barely hear the hissed words behind her:

 

“We will not be stopped, vermin! Mulu will devour you all!”

 

Fortunately, the Yuxa were slower and they weren’t as familiar with the tunnels leading down to Shesh’Ennore in the heart of the mountain. Aennia arrived at the village long before any of the other guards. Shocked faces appeared around her – the Captain of the Guard had once again returned, alone and stained with blood. Guards who were left behind in the village gathered around her.

 

“The others are coming. We have suffered losses, but we have gained the upper hand,” she assured the anxious onlookers.
 

“Go to the Shrine...”

 

Aennia climbed the ten steps to the Shrine of Light and turned to look down at Shesh’Ennore. The small yurts never made sense to her, considering they were already inside a mountain. Everyone in here knew that the Yuxa would tear right through the hide canvas, but still it felt safe and private.

 

“I feel horrible things to come,” someone spoke next to her.

 

It was Eorlith, the village herbalist, alchemist and spiritualist. She was the keeper of the Shrine of Light in Shesh’Ennore and the healer.

 

“Make use of yourself, Eorlith – there are wounded guards coming,” Aennia warned her.

 

Just as planned, Eorlith rushed down the stairs to meet them. It was of course the right thing to do, but that was not why Aennia had suggested it.

 

The voices had whispered a secret to her, something hidden inside the Shrine – the answer to all their problems. There was little time, so she rushed inside the Shrine, which was identical to the one she had just escaped. Her target was the tribute chest.

 

“Take it!”

 

It opened with a loud creak, which made Aennia realize that she really did not want to be caught doing this. Priceless trinkets were pushed aside for a set of strange necklaces: Dinks – small bottles of aromatic fungal spores. Among other things, they can be used to spread the power of the Deep. There was not enough elixir to share for the rest of her guards but, with these, they might have a shot. Aennia applied a drop of elixir to each of the eight Dink bottles and hid them deep in her satchel. Down in the village square, Eorlith had started mending the guards who required attention.

 

While she stood on the top of the stairs, overlooking what she had sworn to keep safe, the hissed words of the Yuxa came back to her.

 

“Mulu will devour you all,” she murmered to herself.

 

It dawned on her, it should be simple – they didn’t need to retaliate. A plan formed in her head. She signaled to Merin and Virion, who were helping Eorlith with the wounded. They dropped what they were doing and went straight to their captain's side. Merins reluctance was hidden under his honor, Virion was visibly excited.

 

“The one we fought at Glowing Rock, he must still be there. Our scouts told us that they set up camp there after … you know. Mulu they call him. Guided by the Deep we can get to him and defeat him. Then the rest will surely surrender,” Aennia told them.

 

Merin fell silent and looked down at his feet.

 

“You don’t need him – he will only get in the way!”

 

“He would, wouldn’t he?” she thought to herself.

 

“Merin, you will rally our troops here, in case their raiding party followed us. You will hold them off until we return.”

 

For the first time Aennia could see disdain in his eyes, just a flicker before it was once again consumed by his sense of duty. He went down to the square again. Virion and Aennia were left alone.

 

“Go, find the best uninjured guards, meet me in the lower tunnels,” said Aennia.


“Why there?” asked Virion.

 

“I know a shortcut. It is crucial that we get there first, in case the raiding party returns.”

 

Virion obliged and set out. Aennia followed him down the stairs. On her way down, she met Eorlith again. She was now as covered in blood as Aennia. She had a determined look on her face.

 

“The price is a precious flower, a handful of ash and your enemy’s last breath,” Eorlith told her, with a knowing look.

 

Not knowing how to respond, Aennia let her pass.

 

“Let it go … ”

 

She shook it off, more than once Eorlith had warned her about things that never happened. Through a narrow passage of yurts at the edge of the village was an entrance to the lower tunnels. Few people used them as they were usually more prone to volcanic fumes. Through them was a shortcut to Glowing Rock, which probably only Aennia knew about. She didn’t have to wait long, Virion and seven other guards arrived within minutes.

 

“Guards of Shesh’Ennore, take your portions now, not later,” she told them.

 

They followed her command without question.

 

“I think they waited for the fumes to come. Doesn’t seem to bother them,” Aennia continued. She noticed some of them were struggling to swallow, something was wrong with the medicine. To avoid distractions, she produced the eight Dinks out of her satchel.

 

“Pass them out,” Aennia told Virion. They accepted without hesitation.

 

“This will be our last battle with the Yuxa. We will go straight to them and kill their commander, Mulu. With the aid of the Deep we will save our village, once and for all!” Aennia stated.

 

Knuckles were cracked, some stamped their feet and all of them adopted a heavier breathing. The Dink influenced them immediately, they were elatedly ready to risk their lives for the cause.

 

Aennia knew that this was their last chance. If the Yuxa attacked their village, they wouldn’t have nearly enough guards to defeat them or even keep them out. Knowing this, she took two more deep sips of the Elixir. The voices rose into a scream once again, but this time she joined in. When opening her eyes, her guards were all holding their swords above their heads, ready for battle.

 

Aennia held back a little, or she would lose her troop. They were fast, but nothing like her. Slippery, jagged cavern rocks were climbed like they were nothing in the pursuit of their goal. She needed to return to Glowing Rock before their ambushers did. A small pile of rocks on the tunnel floor showed that they were approaching the shrine.

 

“Fight! Survive!”

 

Last time, they had waited to be caught in a trap, but not now. Aennia sped up right into where the enemy had now set up camp. A horde of Yuxa were there. The Shesh’Ennores most beautiful shrine had become a pit of slithering creatures. Slimy, pestilent and filthy. Without hesitation Aennia slammed right into the first of the Yuxa she saw, cutting it in half with a spurt of blood. Right behind her came the guards, as ferocious as her. They were outnumbered ten to one but it didn't deter them.

 

“Let yourself feel it, feel our power … ”

 

A surge of power went through her, this one more explosive than the last, rippling through her body. This time it did not stop at her fingertips, but continued along the blade as a bright blue flame. It crackled to the end of her sword, burning everything it touched. She must have hacked away at least twenty Yuxa before they even had time to arm themselves; they were cut down and burned by the Deep flame.

 

Suddenly, Aennia saw him, the one who had led the attack against Glowing Rock. The other Yuxa had called him Mulu. At least one meter longer than the longest Yuxa she had seen, he had his eye on her. He reared up like an attacking snake, ready to lunge at her.

 

If she timed it perfectly, they were only one cut away from ending the conflict. As her determination rose, the blue flame grew – now slightly stinging her hand. The voice told her to listen. Another whisper - it felt more like it talked through tremors in the earth, from the deepest caverns of the mountain. Ancient words of power poured into her mind like a river. Aennia could no longer resist it. She succumbed to the Deep and only then realized that she had resisted the last surge, a wave of energy about to strike. It coiled up in her chest, mirroring her poised enemy.

 

Looking around, she noticed to her horror that the seven guards she had brought with her had been brought to their knees. Not by battle or exhaustion, but by a blue flame emanating from their chest, burning their skin – killing them. Their terrified and pained expressions caused Aennia's restraint to collapse.

 

“Speak … ”

 

No words were spoken, she was not even sure that sounds were produced. Deep things had taken hold of her heart. Her sword erupted, melting in a storm of blue flame and blinding light. Everything in front of her was sent flying like leaves in the wind. Mulu fell backwards, unscathed, but most of the other Yuxa were obliterated. Aennia slowly regained control.

 

“Are we victorious?” she wondered.

 

Frantically looking around in through the smoke and ash, she could not see a single one of her guards, even Virion was gone. The hall was far from quiet, filled with sounds of agony and writhing. She searched around her for her allies. When the smoke cleared, she was presented with a horrifying vision, charred elven remains wearing tatters of scale mail. Their armor had melted and fused with their skin, the only things undamaged were their Dinks, still glowing orange through the gloom.

 

Aennia heard a muffled groan from under a Yuxa corpse, she quickly rolled it off and found Virion, badly beaten but not burnt. He embraced her, but the look on his face was that of defeat and regret.

 

“I lost it on the run here, I don’t know what happened to the others,” said Virion. Neither of them could seem to keep eye contact with each other.

 

“I will find Mulu, and this will be over,” said Aennia.

 

She wandered through the corpses, but he was nowhere to be found. However, a slithering path of blood led to the upper tunnels, to the surface.

 

“More are coming … ”

 

“He’s disappeared into the surface tunnels – we need to catch up with him!” Aennia was fixed on her target.

 

Virion was now back on his feet, with four Dinks around his neck. He told her that if they were the only ones to pay the price, it would be worth it.

 

“He can’t have gotten far, this is our last chance!” Aennia pointed along the trail.

 

“For Shesh’Ennore!” he raised his fist in accord.

 

The surface tunnel leading from Glowing Rock was different, it was steep and narrow. Bad for them but good for Mulu who could slither up it at full speed. The Deep magic still had a painful hold on Aennia, but she chose to overcome it for the sake of speed. There were no piles of stones here, this was new territory and the two guards had to be careful as they ran along it. After a sudden turn the ceiling dropped a couple of feet. To avoid running directly into the sharp rock, Aennia had to dive through legs first. Virion had a second of warning and just managed to duck under.

 

The blisters on her hands started bleeding and every other part of her body was scraped and battered. The tunnels were getting narrower, she had to hold her head down and her arms in. Another quick turn sent her slamming into the wall shoulder first. She stumbled a few steps from the wall in agony. Though her vision was blurred, she could make out a moving shadow to her right.

 

In a small crevice, Mulu was coiled up, he had seen her and she had no time to react. The enormous Yuxa sank his dagger-like teeth into her side, with no sign of letting go.

 

“Let go!”

 

With a violent jerk Mulu threw Aennia to the floor, she was certain death was only moments away., she listened to the voice and let her sword slip from her grip. A burst of blue flame lit up the darkness behind her closed eyes. Virion stood over her, brandishing his sword, he was about to be enveloped in flames. Mulu reeled at the sight of this flames, he had several visible wounds from Aennia’s last attack.

 

He pushed Virion aside, grasping wildly through the fire to get a hold of him. The great Yuxa hissed in pain as the fire burnt his arms, Mulu was desperate to escape. Aennia tried to get to her feet, she called to Virion but there was no reply. She looked around and saw that the burning blue flame was fading. Its only fuel was the bottles on Virion’s burnt chest. With a soft sound like a sigh, his body, her saviour, crumpled into fine ashes. There were no words to describe her sense of loss, the only thing that remained was fury, fueled by the Deep magic soaring inside her. Every ounce of pain was gone.

 

“Kill!”

 

Like a wild animal, Aennia charged after Mulu, nothing could separate her from her prey. Suddenly, there were bursts of light, nothing like she had ever seen before. No flame had ever burned so bright. Aennia looked up at the sun in the sky above her. Her first ever steps on the surface bloodied the ground. She had stepped out into a large flowerbed inside a ruined building.

 

Her enemy was resting against a broken wall of the abandoned house. It was obvious that there was very little fight left in him, but Aennia did not let it stop her. With one swift jab into his chest it was over, Mulu hissed softly, as if he was relieved.

 

“End it!”

 

“You have already destroyed what is left of my tribe, burnt my young and destroyed everything we own. Can you not leave me to die in peace?” said Mulu, his breaths were ragged and gasping.

 

“Liar! You invaded us, defiled our Shrines!” Aennia was confused, exhaustion and grief were creeping up on her.

 

“We were only seeking refuge, new homes – you threw the first stone,” Mulu’s eyes started to glaze over.

 

Aennia looked down at the dying Yuxa, only now realizing that she had never understood anything about them. She thought for a second that he was gone, but suddenly he reared his head and looked deep into her eyes.

 

“When the flood of humanity breaks its dam, we will all drown,” he did not say more, dead silence followed.

 

Aennia fell to her knees in desperation, her hands grasping the flowers around her. To her surprise, she realized that these were the red flowers used by Eorlith as medicine for the fumes, this had to be where she picked them. She had never told her how beautiful the surface was. Picking a flower, she saw through her blurred vision that it was dead. In her hands it turned to mulch, dotted with blue sparks. The bed of flowers had become a rotting sea of grey and blue.

 

“The price is a precious flower, a handful of ash and your enemy’s last breath.”

- Tale Roleplaying Game

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