0.7.1 – Bolthole Midmorning 

Landed on my feet, knees protesting. The air in the bolthole was clammy, but clean; no smoke, and no sulfur. Eris came down into the hole after me, then Mariead. Eris jumped; Mariead was lowered down by her brother. She winced at the force of Aidan’s grip on her arm, and more fell than lowered the last few inches to Eris’, but did not make a sound.  

I left them behind. The tunnel was cramped, close—I had to duck my head and hunch my shoulders, walk sideways and squatting, and even then my arms brushed the walls to either side. The heartbeat in my ears was still foreign, but it was changing, falling out of its demanding rhythm into something more familiar.  

My head felt strange. Like my thoughts weren’t quite mine, the way they sounded, the tone of them. It was too artful, too big. A firestorm wind had burnt down the walls that kept my head in. I tried to think a thought that felt like me. 

It was dark.  

She was with me. I heard Her footsteps, bare feet on the ground, and the faint whisper of Her breath at my shoulder. I didn’t see Her, didn’t look for Her, but Her presence felt stronger, stamped into my side like a brand.  

Stone on stone grated, and the light from behind us was cut off. It left us in utter, sunless dark, the black of caverns and hollows.  

The red glow in my palm shone off the earthen walls, scarlet blood in my veins shining like a spent rushlight. The tunnel was slick with damp, soil packed tight, but not too tight for the water. I opened my palms, held them out, and by the very faintest witchlight I found my way down the uneven floor.  

The quiet in our wee tunnel was unhinged.  

In the dimmest gloom I could nearly see Eris behind me, supporting Mariead. The soft whistle of air was our only hint of Mariead’s presence. Aidan was invisible behind eris; she fairly filled the tunnel. 

“I know it’s dark.” Eris spoke in only a whisper, but it carried in the confined space. “It won’t last.”  

Mariead answered with a wordless, whispering sound.  

A moment later, Eris spoke again. “Slate, can you…see?”  

“Not a fucking thing, minstrel.” If she or Mariead flinched when I looked back, I couldn’t tell. “You all right? Tell me what you’re feeling.”  

“Bruised.” She laughed. “Sore. I think I hit my head on that floor as well.”  

Grannine was there, over her shoulder, one hand on Eris for support as She leaned into view.  Rationally, I knew She must have been in the wall of the tunnel, in total dark like the rest of us, but I could see Her and Her alone, lit up like a limelight, skin stark against the walls.  

“Her heart’s going quick,” She murmured, voice sounding in my ear. “Ask if her belly is sore, and if she’s able to breathe.”  

“Your belly hurting?”  

A pause. The lass vanished back out of sight. I could nearly picture the look Eris was giving me. “And how’s your breathing?”  

“No,” Eris said. “And…fine?”  

“And my Mariead? Ask how she is breathing.”  

“Sister, how’s your…” I stopped. “Lass.”  

“She won’t be able to speak yet, but she can still move her hands, can’t she?” 

“Just give my shoulder a tap if you’re having trouble breathing.” The lass murmured something else in my ear. “Or two if you’re all right the now.”  

Mariead’s hand found my back, once, twice. Grannine made a small, pleased sound.  

The fuck did she do to herself? 

“Saved her life.”  

Doesn’t fucking look like it, does it now? How’s she meant to speak?  

“Breath first. We have to run now, don’t we? We need her up and walking.” 

We? I stopped dead in the tunnel. Lass, did you…speak to her?  

Mariead made a noise behind me, questioning. At that moment, I realized I’d been following the tunnel without so much as looking where I was going. My feet had tracked over the dirt without so much as a trip. I blinked, didn’t see anything more in the dark beyond the faint glow from my hands.  

“Might have done.” She sounded pleased with Herself, affectionate. “Don’t know if I could speak to her if she wasn’t so good at listening.” She hummed in the dark at the back of my skull.  

I…didn’t know you could do that.  

“Don’t know if I could do it again.”  

I started walking again. Thought I saw light, might have just been imagining. Lass… 

“Yes, my Dermot?”  

“Slate?” Eris said, interrupting me midword. She sounded stern. “Can I just…ask…” 

I opened my mouth to answer.  

“Be gentle,” Grannine chided, before I said a thing. I closed my mouth. “She’s trying to sound brave.”  

I let out a long hiss through my teeth that turned into a sigh.  

“Aye, minstrel, have at me.”  

“Just a…” I could practically hear her gathering her thoughts, looking for words. Memory supplied the image of her face, pensive, a wee bit anxious, thoughtful. “What the fuck was that?” 

Didn’t expect that to get a laugh out of me, but it did, hoarse and low in the tunnel.  

Any answer for her, lass?  

“I don’t know.” Grannine’s voice stole out of the dark at my shoulder. “But there was…the Inquisitor. He had…something.”  

I nodded. Thought on it.  

“Took his soul.”  

Silence followed that. I laughed into the dark, but now it was a happier sound—there was light up there, faint, dusty, filtered down through some crack in the ceiling. “I’m only fucking with you, minstrel. I’ve no idea.”  

“Dermot?” 

Aye, lass.  

“That Inquisitor…you said there were more of them? Twelve.” 

I focused on the light, on the faint incline of the tunnel, hands on the walls now. It was getting brighter, and my steps were getting quicker. Blood in my veins was too dim to be seen even at the very darkest patches on my palms.  

There are. The thought of the Inquisitor came to me, whole, before we’d torn the light from him. Memory brought waves of loathing. Twelve. The punishing hand of the Church. Eleven now. Vicious triumph in that thought. And a hunger that was not mine.  

“Dermot?”  

Aye, lass. 

Her voice stopped me in my tracks, poleaxed me at the head of the tunnel, inches from the shaft of grey light beaming down. My feet stuck to the ground like they were burned into place.  

“Find them.” Her hands landed on my shoulders, first the left, then the right, and Her presence circled around me, invisible. “Find them. Find them.” Fire danced through my thoughts. Flickered behind my eyes. “We can find them. We can tear the fire from them. We can make it ours. I can make it mine.”  

This is it. I’ve finally gone and damned myself. 

“Does this feel like damnation?” Her hands cupped my cheeks, and She crystalized from the air before me between one blink and the next, ethereal, scarlet eyes staring into mine. Her lips did not move. “Dermot, I am more, now. I understand more, now. I…if we take more, if we find more…”  

Her voice trailed off. She sounded uncertain, unsure, a tone I’d rarely heard. She spoke, lips moving now, like She was sounding out the words. “I might…be able to remember.” 
Remember what, lass? 

“I–” 

Mariead touched my shoulder.  

“Slate,” Eris repeated, breaking into our conversation. “Fucking hell, every time. Slate, can you hear me? Shift it, you thick lump of a man.” 

I cleared my throat, shifting, looking up.  

“I’m just, scouting ahead.”  

Mariead made a dry, rustling sound which might have been a laugh.  

There was no stair, no ladder out. There were footholds and handholds cut into the wall of the ending, up the slope, and I followed them to a cramped, twisted doorway. Roots crazed through the dirt around us, the heart of a tree twisting deep into the ground, some of them grown over the handholds.  

I hauled myself up. Whoever had cut the well had made it for a smaller reach, small enough that I could climb two at a time, reach the top of the hole in only two pulls.  

Above, light shone in through cracks at the edge of an irregular door. It had no latch and no handle. I put my hand out and pushed, firmed up my grip on a root and shoved until it grated open.  

Grey sky, visible in patches through the trees above. Dark green bristles blocked out much of the light, and the hush of a pine grove surrounded me.  

Sound in the forest. Not Her. Someone else.  

“…something,” a voice said, not far away. A stranger.  

I felt the snarl on my face. We’re so close.  

One hand on the lip, launch myself over. Landed on the ground like a wolf, Fury swinging at my side.  

Head up. Scan the bushes.  

I put a hand out, held it over the well in warning. Didn’t dare look back. Hushed sounds from the tunnel seemed painfully loud, amplified by the open doorway.  

Lass.  

“I’m here.”  

The forest turned from green to black, a gloomy, lightless place writ in red. Through the undergrowth, I saw the light of bodies moving, the flashes of steam as they exhaled air warmer than the world around them.  

Two men, armor dark against the ember-glow of their skin. Swords in hand. Not Penitents; proper Church soldiers, trained and armed. Their scarlets were black.  

Hands on the ground. The veins stood out, hotter than the rest. I rose into a crouch, low and lean, fingers spread, ready to charge.  

They moved on.  

I let out a breath. Closed my eyes, opened them again, saw the forest green and grey. Sank back onto my haunches, one hand in the loam. Tried not to think about the fire in my veins, the hole in Mariead’s neck, the high and holy wrath of the Church we’d surely just invoked with the death of an Inquisitor, the full fury of Frydain falling on our shoulders… 

My head slumped. Sank. Down. I only wanted to take my fucking gold and hide. To have done with it.  

“Oh, my Dermot.” Her hands stirred through my hair, took me by the chin and hand. “My Dermot, take another breath. Breathe with me.” She tugged gently, insistent. “Take one more step for me, my own Dermot. One more step and then another.”  

I took another breath. Shifted to my feet.  

Nearly done. I took a step forward. It’s nearly done.  

“My Dermot,” Grannine laughed as much as spoke. “We’re only just getting started.”  

*

0.6.6 – Queen’s Crystal

0.7.2 – Northshire Noon

4 thoughts on “0.7.1 – Bolthole Midmorning 

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