As I prepared to knock out a block under a box, I prayed it didn’t have another spider in it. So far, I’d found ten boxes, one with a key, four with nickel, two with spiders and three with delicious magic ripples. I escaped one of the spiders but the other killed me right away.
I put my pickaxe under one arm and used my hands to slap both cheeks.
Gripping my pick's shaft firmly, I entered the space then swiftly flew back a few blocks. It crashed, shattering. A gold skeleton key floated in the center of block’s space for a second before flying into my inventory.
I ran up to Korren. “Keys!”
With a mental call to my inventory, the two gold skeleton keys appeared in my palm. Before handing them over, I noticed one had a pattern of leaves etched into it and the other thorns.
She smiled. “Excellent. Hand me your pickaxe.”
I did as she asked and the dark elf pulled out a bow made of shadows that had a string of white light. She muttered a quick chant and the pickaxe merged with the weapon causing a brief ripple in space. She presented it to me as a tailor would a fine suit, and placed navy archer’s gloves atop it.
I took the gloves first and they appeared on my forearms. Then I reached towards the bow. I believe that my hand would touch a mist-like substance, instead, I felt a cold texture like sandblasted glass. I nearly jumped in surprise.
“This bow has a range of two blocks. But I have superior ones in my inventory. Deliver more keys and I shall upgrade yours.”
I had to assume that the bow acted similarly to my brother’s sword which he’d used as both pick and weapon when battling Nenvari. I stared into its shadowy shaft, searching for where the stats were. None appeared but, similar to my inventory, the information rose to the surface of my mind. My bow had 52/52 durability and a charge of 0/20.
I walked to Meeks and grinned. He raised both brows.
“That be a fine startin’ weapon, Miss.”
“Thank you! But since it’s replaced my pickaxe I’m not sure how I’m supposed to upgrade it.”
He grinned. “I take care of that. Ye just hand me ore worth 150 coins.”
I held out my hand. “Agreed. I should have it now.”
We shook and the ore disappeared from my inventory.
He took out a pencil-like blue crystal. It wobbled in his hand like an upset cat and shot into my bow. Sparks flew. My durability rose from 52 to 56.
I grinned. “Thank you!”
“Ye’re welcome miss. And yer next upgrade ‘ll also be 150.”
“That’s good news. It really surprised me when the price jumped the last time.”
“The price’ll rise again after 6 upgrades. Then it’ll be 200.”
I frowned. “Why is that?”
“I’ll need te use a higher grade crystal te get the same 4 durability points.”
“What happens if you use the lower grade?”
“If yer lucky ye’ll get 1 point. But it’s not worth the risk.”
“What if we use the higher grade crystal now?”
“It’ll break from getting too high of an upgrade too soon.”
I supposed that made sense.
“Thank you, Mr. Meeks!”
I waved to the three cavern dwellers as I walked to my mine.
“And do bring me 4 mushrooms from those traps,” Phenic called.
After a good fifteen minutes in the mine, I dodged a spider.
Hallucinations filled my vision.
I walked through my mine. Its walls flashed, becoming funhouse mirrors. My brother appeared, but he looked different. His ears were pointed, his eyes glowed blue, and he carried a book of magic.
“Hey. We have to get out of here. We have to go back home.”
He shook his head. “I belong here, Kelly. You go home.”
“Don’t be selfish! Do you know how worried mom is going to be when she gets home and finds both of us gone?”
He floated backward. “No. You’re selfish. I’m happy here.”
I flew toward him. He sped away. I couldn’t catch up. My eyes watered with my desperation to reach him.
Air stopped filling my lungs and for a brief moment, I saw the trap around me, mushrooms pulsating with rancid-sweet smelling spores.
You are about to die. Want me to save you?
I licked my lips and swallowed.
Burning. Everything felt like burning.
Once again the hateful gray world appeared with its master.
I made a stupid mistake, misjudging where the rocks would fall.
Stuck, but still alive, I pushed on all sides.
You are about to—
My lungs became fire. I passed out.
As I woke in the gray world I was grateful that the rules of the mine didn’t force me to suffocate for however long it would have taken my human body to die. I was less grateful that I had to feel pain in the first place.
After 20 minutes of carefully traversing the mine, I saw a long empty horizontal space towards the bottom of my map. Hoping that it was the entrance to fight Nenvari I rushed towards it. This could be it. This could be the end!
Rocks fell. I must have missed something in my hurry because a vertical line of boulders fell towards me. I sidestepped between two boulders and a box. I calculated poorly. The line of boulders closed my only exit.
You are about to die. Want me to save you?
I almost said yes. I wanted to say yes. But if I couldn't make it down there without cheating then I couldn't defeat whatever waited for me beyond those empty spaces. Also, I wanted to save every single crystal for the fight with Nenvari.
My lungs burned and I passed out.
I took off my belt and threw it to the dark ground. “I can't even!”
“I do not understand what you're saying.”
“Can't I just stay here for a while? Please?”
Mr. Black didn’t say anything for a few seconds. “Time does not pass here. Stay as long as you need.”
I curled into a ball, eyes watering, but I didn't cry. I hadn’t earned the right to.
A warm but tentative hand rubbed my back. I stilled.
I never expected this bit of kindness from the heartless Reaper.
I cleared my throat. “Please, tell me a story.”
The ringing of silence stole through the air. I figured it was a longshot but I wanted help forgetting the pain and aggravation.
He cleared his throat and as he spoke his voice sounded more human than I’d ever heard it, as if it had lost its Reaperness.
“There once was a girl named Suzan with braids of chocolate brown
Her older brother adored her up and down the town
He worked to be immortal with power over death
She worked to support him with too little rest
His first day of reaping, the first soul he reaped
Was an old woman named Suzan, over whom he wept
Too long had he taken to grow power over time and death
While the clock had stopped for him, his sister aged to her last breath”
When he didn’t continue I knew he’d finished. After a few minutes of resting and allowing myself the comfort of a person’s touch, I began to think.
Was the story about him, or about some reaper from the past? Perhaps I was over thinking it and every reaper learned the nursery rhyme, taking it as a warning to not spend too long in learning their powers. That sounded more reasonable than him having a tragic past. Either way, I was grateful.
“You're a really awful storyteller.”
With a laugh, I stood up.
Before he could get up I squeezed his hand. “Thank you. I'm ready to continue.”
He stared at his fingers with a seriously confused expression. “Follow me.”