Mines are an existence that no civilization can do without. Britain had prehistoric flint mines long before they built Stonehenge, and in Egypt there are copper mines dating back to before the pyramids. The work was dangerous, but had to be done, in order for civilization to exist.
It’s no different on Huade, but here, the miners always run the risk of encountering powerful streams of underground mana flow, which bring any number of calamities down upon them and render sections of their mines unusable. The only choice once that happens is to bring in adventurers to defend the rest of the mine and push back the monsters that emerge. And commence mining in a new direction.
Once a mine reaches an age like that of Carael, measured in the thousands of years, it becomes a bizarre labyrinth, with dozens of entrances and hundreds of working sections intermingled with even greater numbers of monster-ridden dens.
This particular den sat more than three hundred paces lower than the mine entrance I had chosen based upon the reading of the locator stone, and more than three hour’s of exploration beyond the last miner we had met. We were well into long played-out ancient galleries in one of the oldest sections. The monsters in this case were giant rats.
It would be better if we had a view of the exit– one could normally expect to have that much– but unfortunately a mist obscured it.
The mist had a cloudy, dark texture, and I could hear snuffling noises from the monsters hidden within. The sounds would probably be the chittering of rats if these beasts weren’t the weight of medium-sized dogs. I was able to sense their mana and miasma with fairy sight and at times, I could barely make out the nearer shapes with vampire sight. The faint glows from a pair of ancient foxfire lanterns were currently our only light, since I had extinguished my circlet of light in order to see enemies.
“So, Ceria,” Bruna commented in a light voice that didn’t match the tension of the situation, “These things are rats. That means we can leave them to you, right?”
“What? Why would you… ” Ceria spluttered, then stopped. “Because they’re rats and I’m a cat, right? Very funny, bitch.”
By the way, Ceria is the cat-kin combat mage I had hired. Bruna is her partner, the statuesque human warrioress.
Bruna’s chuckle had an edge to it, and I could smell a familiar fragrance.
“Bruna, you’re wounded,” I said. “I smell blood.”
Let me set the scene here. We were basically standing with our backs to each other, facing three directions, in the middle of a wide spot in the mine tunnel where it branched. So I couldn’t actually see my companions at that moment. As I mentioned, we had rats in all directions. We had just persuaded the first wave of them to back off, resulting in the current standoff.
“That’s quite a nose you have, fairy girl,” Bruna answered. Yup, her voice was shaking. Was she going into shock? “How’d you know it’s me?”
Because a vampire can distinguish people by the scent of their blood, I didn’t respond.
Ceria backed me up. “I can smell it, too, Bruna. What do you want to do about it, Lady?”
They were now both calling me “Lady”, which I think was short for “My Lady”. Didn’t make sense otherwise, because they both seemed to be older than me.
I decided, “I’m going into the middle. You two guard me, forward and back, so I can put my blade away and heal her.”
“That’s where we wanted you in the first place,” Bruna complained as we rearranged ourselves. I sheathed my sword so I could inspect the human warrioress. After a few seconds, I was fighting down panic. The rat that did it now lay dead on the ground a pace away, but Bruna had been outright mauled on her upper arm, leaving a flap of skin hanging, and the rat had torn the spaulder and rerebrace on that side completely way. They were hanging from the back of her brigandine. And…
With my stomach already turning in anticipation of the pain I would have to put myself through, I told her, “You’re suffering miasma poisoning. I’ll have to purify the wound.”
“No!” Bruna immediately yelped. “No purification!”
“Huh? I need to do this right away. It’s really bad…”
“Lady, listen to her,” Ceria said behind me. “Purification is really bad for Bruna.”
That was a bizarre thing to say, since purification was harmless to mortal species like these two, but I put it aside for the moment. “Fine. For now, I’ll just stop the bleeding. Clench your teeth. My magic is a little too strong for mortals.”
I had woke Arken and Melione up well before sunrise, so I could have Melione do purification magic for me. At Arken’s suggestion, she imbued a little vial of water with Purification. When a priest does it, it’s called Holy Water. As is, we call it a ‘purification potion’, but it is technically the same stuff. Once again, she tapped into mana that I channeled, my body filling with pain as her purification magic tortured my monster half. But I could endure it, and just as had happened with healing and somnolence, I saw the method clearly, and knew I could cast it.
Arken had me heal him, and then he had me make several healing potions as well, so I could practice not killing the patient with overwhelming magic. I also had made up a supply of purification potions. They weren’t of any real value, since they were just water, without the herbal and mineral ingredients that would keep the mana from dissapating, but Arken could consume the healing potions immediately. The point of doing them was that, by the time I set out for the Jobs Office, I had at least a little control over the flow.
Bruna was holding her shortsword in her off arm. This was bad. Fortunately she’d slung her glaive and switched to the sword earlier, when the tunnels got tight.
I used my left hand to hold the skin in place, then held my right hand over Bruna’s blood-coated arm. As gingerly as possible, I gave a short burst of healing, concentrating on the skin.
“Ah!” she cried out, flinching away from the heat of my magic, but by the time she reacted, I had already stopped.
“I think that will stop the bleeding,” I said, reaching behind myself to unlimber my crossbow, which now hung sideways across the small of my back. I had left my little travel pack with Arken and bought a backpack. I had to take it off to fly, but it could hold more gear and provisions. “We need to get away from here, so I can treat you properly. You’re trembling, and that’s a bad sign.”
I had my eye on a larger shape moving among the shapes that vampire sight was revealing. It had been pacing back and forth, but now it was staring at us.
“Lady, you ain’t gonna do much with that toy,” Bruna warned me as she saw me brace the little crossbow with my foot and pull up on the lever to set it. “Those ain’t no rabbits.”
My crossbow was a light hunting model, not an infantry weapon or a big game arbalest, but while I was busy practicing my healing magic Arken had enchanted a handful of bolts for me. I pulled one of those from my belt now, and slipped it into the flight groove. After taking a moment to double check the direction of the missing party members using my locator stone, I spoke again.
“We’re going to the right. Get ready to head forward as soon as I fire,” I ordered. Bruna and I were facing the direction with the branching tunnels that headed further into the mines, or ‘forward’.
“Give me a signal when you go!” Ceria demanded, but I laughed.
“Get set right now, girl. You’re about to hear that signal,” I told her, took aim and…
The boss rat must have understood from our voices that we were preparing to do something. He picked that moment to charge. I let fly with the crossbow.
Arken’s crossbow bolt enchantment causes a really loud crack, almost like a gunshot. I don’t know if the old Tiana ever knew what made the sound, but Robert understood. Just like the snap of a bullwhip, it was the boom created by an object breaking the sound barrier. Thanks to the size of the bolt, it’s no small noise, either. The boss rat was blown backward by the impact, and the remaining rats, who had just begun to charge, veered to the sides. I tapped Bruna’s back and ran forward, pulling my knife as I ran. I didn’t have time to put the crossbow away, and my sword was difficult to handle one-handed at close quarters.
“Come on!” I yelled over my shoulder, but Bruna was already nearly abreast of me and Ceria was right behind me. The sound of the crossbow shot was echoing through the tunnels and back to us.
“You weren’t kidding, Lady!” Ceria yelled as we ran. Both she and Bruna struck at rats as we dashed past them. “What was that noise?”
As I vaulted the twitching corpse of the boss rat, I answered, “Enchanted bolt.”
I didn’t hear anything in return. Looking back their direction, I saw the two of them wearing stunned expressions. Why?
Fortunately, the mist disappeared almost as soon as we passed the fork in the tunnel. We could run down the hall for almost a hundred paces, rounding a corner before we at last came to a halt in a small gallery where more antique foxfire lamps still glowed. We waited for a while, but did not hear the rats approaching. Whatever attraction caused them to congregate at that particular spot probably kept them from wandering off as well.
“Now then,” I stated, as I sat down near where the other two were kneeling and catching their breath. “Let’s have a look at your arm, Bruna.”
The woman looked up at me with a dull look in her eyes, then toppled sideways to the tunnel floor.