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Chapter 5 - Lost to the Shadows

As the group cautiously approached the room where they'd felled the orog, Elbreth's chest tightened and her lips moved soundlessly, Please don't let us fight anything! She tightened her grip on her bow and ensured her arrow was properly nocked.

Just ahead of her in the dim, green lighting, Immeral slowed. The gaping doorway was just a few feet ahead. Its proximity was a tangible presence that threw all of Elbreth's senses into sharp definition. Earthy pungency filled her nostrils. Each scale on her uncle's mail shirt reflected back the unearthly phosphorescent glow of the moss. Her bow began to feel heavy in her hand. She could hear the slow, even breathing of Cora behind her, and realised her own breaths were coming in short gasps. The half-elf girl forced herself to breathe deeply, filling her lungs and exhaling with deliberate concentration. Gradually, the constriction in her chest loosening, Elbreth's head began to clear. The anxiety faded and was replaced by a stability, an understanding. She could fight if she had to. She prayed the gods she wouldn't have to.

Immeral rounded the doorway and disappeared into the room. Elbreth held her breath. Then the high elf's hand appeared in the open doorway, waving them in.

"It's clear," his whispered voice fell flat in the hollow enclosure of the stone stronghold.

The half-elf obediently followed her uncle in, stepping carefully. The orog still lay where they'd left him, his body stiffened in the rigor of death. Elbreth paused by the far door, not sure what she was waiting for, and looked about her. The room seemed unchanged but for the stench of the orog's fouled body. Behind her was a slight scuffling as Cora and Erkie entered the room, lept over the body, and joined the Liadons at the other side.

"Onward, then?" Erkie looked from one to another, eyebrows raised. His weight on one leg, he leaned jauntily on his rapier, which was point-down against the stone of the floor.

"Yes, onward." Immeral again leading, the company warily entered the unknown hallway. Silence reigned over the small group as they strode softly along the corridor. No sounds met them, and the dim light of the lichen added a surreal element to their passage.

So, this is adventuring - hours of tedious stealth occasionally interrupted by frantic battle for one's life. Elbreth's wry thoughts replayed the half-ogre's death at her hand. She pursed her lips. It was self-defense. There was nothing I could have done. Right? Gods, I hope he didn't have family. Her face clouded over, betraying her thoughts. The last thing I want is to be responsible for someone else's anguish. The half-elf pushed the grimy, sticky strands of her hair back from her face with a gloved hand. Ugh. I need a bath. In fact, I've probably spoiled this dress. The drying blood on her cuirass was becoming tacky, the leather stained in dark splotches.

Immeral suddenly slowed. Around him, Elbreth could see the corridor had ended in another large room. Doorless, the luminescent moss gave the room an eerie green glow. Immeral stepped cautiously into the room, sidling to the left along the wall and allowing the others to step inside.

"Hey, I can kinda see in here!" Cora's small voice echoed in the open vastness. The room had a high vaulted ceiling on which the glowing lichen seemed to be growing thicker, giving off some semblance of a pale daylight. The air was damp and pungent, and the far off sound of running water could just barely be discerned. Several oaken doors stood shut along the left wall, all evenly spaced as though the architect was concerned about the aesthetics and balance of the room. At the far end was a wide archway leading to yet another corridor, and on their left was a single, wide opening placed in the exact centre of the wall, like a doorway without a set of doors.

Curious, the party began to spread out. Dark, almost furry masses of various sizes littered the floor. Elbreth nudged one with the toe of her boot. Bread. Mouldy bread. Loaves and partial loaves covered in a thriving black mould. Strange. She continued to the double-wide doorway, ignoring the chatter of her party behind her. The sounds of water were a little clearer over here. As the girl drew closer, she realised the doorway was actually the entrance to a balcony - a stone balustrade ringed the edges of the floor. Slowly Elbreth crept forward, striving to peer into the darkness. Pale green light from behind her cast the barest of shadows before her feet. The sound of water was so far away, somewhere beneath her. This must overlook a great chasm with a subterranean river running through it.

Before she could actually reach the cold stone of the railing, her uncle's voice called out from the room behind her. "Elbreth? We're moving on."

Elbreth turned, denying her curiosity. I probably wouldn't have been able to see anything anyhow. Holding her side-quiver tight so it wouldn't bounce, she jogged over to where the rest of her party were waiting in the centre of the room.

"I'm thinking the archway," Cora was saying. "We can always come back if we can't find that hobgoblin down there." She was leaning casually on her bow.

"Agreed," Erkie nodded, "let's stick to one side and explore this place in an orderly fashion. Otherwise we'll never find the bugger."

"Very well, then." One of Immeral's swords was already drawn, and he hefted it in anticipation. "Let's see if we can find him expediently. Forward it is." The high elf led the way into the hallway, Elbreth, as usual, close on his heels. She could hear Cora and Erkie fall into step behind her.

This corridor was no different than the last; five feet wide, ten feet tall, masterfully hewn stone covered in fluorescing lichens. No sconces on the walls, no decoration. The dwarven folk who lived here must have been a no-nonsense group, Elbreth thought to herself.

Not ten minutes down the straight hall, they came to another large room. Again, ever cautious, Immeral slowed before the actual entryway. Elbreth managed to peek past his shoulder. The room was dark. Very dark. There were still lichens growing along the walls, but they were sparse and sickly. A whole area in the centre of the room rested in complete shadow, the light too weak to reach it. Wafts of dank, mouldy bread smell offended her nostrils once more. Looking to the floor, the half-elf saw the familiar dark lumps of mouldering bread. And something else. It was as though someone had trickled fine grains of pale sand in a series of perfect spirals, evenly distributed about the room. Elbreth shifted her feet, her chest tightening. She knew nothing about magic, but her imagination began to fill in the ample number of blanks. A ritual? Is this place cursed? Is that what the bread was for? Some sort of offering, years ago?

Immeral took a step forward into the room. A soft sigh filled the empty spaces of the air, crescendoing into a gasping shriek. A breeze began to tease their clothes and hair, chill and damp. Ethereal blackness glided from the darkness to stand before them. It looked as though a blanket of shadow had been draped over a human skull. And it was shrieking. Piercing anguish and hatred pummeled their eardrums; Elbreth clenched her teeth and fought to keep from dropping her bow.

Her uncle backed up into the relative protection of the hallway, avoiding the living shadow's grasping reach and simultaneously slashing at it with his sword. The glimmering blade passed through it almost effortlessly, slicing off wisps of the shadow's substance which vapourised as they were detached. Elbreth nocked an arrow, nervously aware of how shaky her hands were. The shadow's shriek changed to a haunted, gasping howl. From behind it, another shadow appeared. It glided straight towards Immeral, flattened itself against the wall, and coasted past Elbreth and Cora, leaving the half-elf feeling vulnerable. She could hear muttering cursing from the two behind her and felt bad for the dark-blind little halfling. The shadow must have reformed on the other side, for now the nightmarish shrieking and moaning was all around them, inescapable. Twanging bowstring and the whistling of metal swords punctuated the cacophony, as well as an occasional clash as metal passed through the undead shadows and struck solid rock.

Elbreth bit her lip, steady now! Loosing her arrow, she prayed it would miss her uncle. Her silent pleas were answered. The arrow flew true, passing through the shadow just under it's skull and dispersing another waft of smoky blackness and eliciting another shriek. Her shaking fingers struggled to find another arrow in her quiver. Roiling, billowing black fingers began to reach for her, then Immeral stepped in front of them. Intercepted. The black haze of the shadow's hand thrust forward through the glimmering armour and directly into her uncle's chest. A scream of utter agony ripped from his throat, his head thrown back in pain, Immeral dropped to his knees. Barely a second slipped by as, shocked, Elbreth watched her uncle attempting to claw ineffectively at the black, misty arm that protruded from him. His eyes rolled back as his very life began draining from his body. Slowly his arms dropped, and his fingers opened, dropping his sword to the ground. Deep wrinkles began forming across his body as though all the moisture were being sucked from him, leaving his skin dry and loose. Immeral's pale face now ashen, barely a last rasping sigh managed to escape his lips before he fell, completely lifeless, to the cold stone floor.

Enraged, Elbreth screamed defiantly through her tears at the shadowy form as she stepped over to straddle the body of her uncle. Grabbing for her dagger, she lunged for the shadow's head. The blade of her small dagger ripped into the shadowy figure; its blackness dissipated with a rasping screech, the human skull dropping hollowly to the floor and rolling to the side before disintegrating into a small pile of ashen dust.

Her brain registered a similar death-screech from the second shadow, but she paid it no heed. She had eyes only for Immeral. Her uncle. The only family she'd had left. Sobs bubbled up from the depths of her body as she knelt down beside her uncle's still and emaciated form. She lifted his head, attempting to cradle it in her lap, his waxen face blurred by tears. Elbreth had no thoughts, only wave after wave of overwhelming emotion. Beside herself, she closed her eyes. Her heart was torn, shredded. The last of her hope was gone. Sobs slowed to gasps.

Through the curtain of her grief, she felt a small hand on her shoulder.

"Elbreth?" It was Cora. "We need to get out of here, there could be more of them."

Slowly Elbreth began to still her anguished mind. Her small, gasping sobs began to settle into quiet weeping as a river of tears began to pour from her eyes. Cora helped her to gently place Immeral's head back to the ground and scooch back until she was sitting flat on the ground with her back against one of the walls.

"There now, you're all right. It's hard, but you'll be all right." Murmurs of consolation came from the halfling beside her, small arm around the half-elf's shoulders. Taking deep breaths, Elbreth finally managed to stymie the flow of tears, rubbing them out with her gloved hands. She leaned her head back against the rock and closed her eyes again. The stone felt pleasantly cool.

A scuffling sound at her feet made her look up. Erkie was wrestling the scale shirt from Immeral's body. Elbreth frowned.

"We need to be practical, my girl," Cora explained. "We'll need his supplies, and there's no use wasting good armour. It could be you'll want it. Besides, you'll want some of his things as keepsakes."

"Yes, I suppose," Elbreth whispered, her voice hoarse. She watched as Erkie began sorting through Immeral's backpack. Rations, some rope, torches. A small wooden box, elaborately carved. Elbreth recognised it. Leaning forward, she picked it up, running her hand across the frieze of elegant trees and flowers. The lid fit tightly, perfectly. Removing it carefully and setting it down beside her, the half-elf gazed into the box at her uncle's treasures.

Most of the space was taken up with a rolled piece of silk, in which Elbreth knew her uncle kept a set of chess pieces. Hand-carved from blocks of walnut and birch, the pieces were often in her uncle's hand of an evening back in Carhouth. He used to play against father nearly every night. Elbreth almost wished, for nostalgia's sake, that she'd learned to play the game when they'd offered. A gold signet ring and a folded piece of parchment sat in the remaining space. The girl didn't need to look at the ring to know it, but she picked it up anyways. The Liadon family's emblem was a bare oak tree, its branches stretched wide across the face of the ring. Its trunk was chopped at the base, so it looked rather like a child's drawing of a tree in winter. The paper was his patent; a document proving Immeral's nobility to anyone who would care to question it. Elbreth removed the patent as well, and closed the box again, placing it on the ground beside her with the folded parchment and the ring resting on top of it.

The piles beside Erkie had grown. To one side were the 'useful' items: extra rations, Immeral's quiver of arrows, his other weapons and armour, and so forth. These were things they would either run out of, or could use or sell. To the other side were the 'useless' items: a spare bedroll and backpack, Immeral's drinking horn, and the extra torches. Sitting forward, Elbreth began to dig through the second pile. The drinking horn was immediately moved to her side. For as long as she could remember, her uncle had carried that horn. She remembered her mother telling her that it was nothing more than a symbol, now, which he wore as penance. An ever-present reminder of what alcohol had done to him and his family.

Cora emptied a few coins out of Immeral's belt pouch into her small palm. "Do you folks mind if I collect any treasure we find and we can just divvy it up later?" She looked between the gnome and the half-elf. Erkie shrugged. Elbreth nodded absently, looking intently at her uncle's skeletal face. The coins quickly disappeared into Cora's belt pouch with a jingle.

"There now," Erkie straightened, "there should be three days' worth of rations each, I'll take the extra rope; is there anything in particular you two want to carry?"

"I think Elbreth should have her uncle's armour," Cora volunteered. "There's a much better chance of it fitting her than either of us; and if not, she could always sell it. It'd be a shame to waste such nice scale mail." She ran her small blacksmith's hand along the fine plates.

"Sounds fair to me," Erkie agreed. "Do the two of you want to divide up his arrows? I'm thinking we could just sell his swords once we get back to town, I've got room to carry those." He looked at Elbreth, "Unless you specifically wanted to keep them?" Elbreth shook her head wordlessly. She was still gazing at her uncle. Slowly she moved to examine his face more closely.

"We need to get out of here," the half-elf's voice was matter-of-fact. Confident. Her eyes were hard above her tear-streaked face as she looked at Cora. "He's going to come back as one of those shadows."

Cora stared at Immeral's body and quickly stood to her feet, "how do you know?"

"I - I'm not sure." Elbreth stood, "I just know." She quickly gathered all her uncle's treasures and tossed them into her backpack along with the scale shirt. "I want to get out of here."

"Fine," the gnome was ready to go. "Let's head back to the first room with that mouldy bread. It seemed safe enough, and we can decide from there what to do next."

"Should we take his body back with us?" Cora was still hesitating.

"I don't like leaving him here without a proper funeral, either; but if he's going to come back as one of those shadow creatures, I don't want to risk having it appear on top of us just because we decided to be sentimental." Erkie raised his eyebrow at the two women before turning to backtrack down the hallway.

Right, a more sensible Elbreth mentally agreed, it's not the time or place to be emotional. It's not safe. It's not practical. There will be a time to mourn properly; but not here, not now.

Cora nodded. "Okay, let's go then." She adjusted the shoulders of her backpack and fell into step behind Elbreth, bringing up the rear.

The trip back was uneventful, but Elbreth found she was holding her breath and listening the entire way. Although, I don't think those shadows actually made any sounds until they were attacking. I wonder if they'd follow us. I hope not. I don't want to feel like I'm being pursued. Prey. An involuntary shiver wracked the young woman's body.

Within a few minutes they were back in the room with the mouldy bread and the strange terrace that overlooked darkness. Other doorways, their oaken doors still closed, exited off to the party's right, opposite the double-wide balcony opening. Erkie led them to a corner of the room, the brighter green glow of the moss in this room illuminating everything evenly. He plunked his backpack down on the ground and himself beside it.

"Right," he began, looking at the two women, "let's make some plans."

Mostly Harmless Ch 5: Text
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