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Talia pointed to a line across the map on the table. From the city they were in to the outskirts her fingers traced, and Adelaide let out a yawn. Josh elbowed her to pay attention. Eca was nowhere to be seen.

The Guide briefed, "The first tunnel is under this establishment. It leads out east of the Harvestfall Quarry. We'll blend in with the morning workers and go on foot from there to the second tunnel entrance here." She gestured to an unmarked, nondescript location further south. "That tunnel will take us south and out the other side of the Reveries Mountain. We'll travel on foot through Titan's Graveyard. That's the current battleground right now, so once we pass that, it'll be safer and easier to manoeuvre until we reach Citi. Any questions?"

Adelle's hand shot up. "Can someone please tell me what's Harvestfall?"

Josh exchanged a look with Talia.

The latter sighed. "Let's get into the tunnels and have Josh brief you on the way. We' don't want to miss our opening."

She brought them through the kitchen of the tavern and down into the basement. Pass a storage area only a quarter filled with food was a shelf stacked bottom to top with closed boxes and opaque mason jars. A single oil lamp hung from the middle of the ceiling, lighting the room in a dancing flame. She and Josh each took a side of the shelf and together, they pulled at an angle. The shelf swung on one leg, slowly revealing a small entranceway dug into the corner of the wall leading down a flight of stairs - just wide enough for a single person to squeeze through.

"Come along," Talia said, a pinch of excitement in her voice as she lead the way down.

Josh allowed Luce and Adelle to go down first as he had to close the shelf. Just as he stepped into the stairway and turned to pull shut the shelf, Eca came into the room.

"Ah," the man in white noted. "I thought I had missed you."

"Wished you had," Josh said, not hiding his distrust.

"No need for hostilities," Eca replied. "I am your sponsor after all."

"What do you want?"

Eca approached Josh and from a pocket, took out a piece of paper. "When you come back for the war, I'll be in one of these safe-houses. I'm sure you'll be resourceful enough to find a way in without keys."

Though reluctant, Josh took the paper. "You say that as if you're sure we'll be fighting."

Eca smiled. "You took the map, did you not?"

Josh did not reply. He had half a mind to throw the paper onto the ground. He kept it instead, thinking that safe-houses might come in handy when they make their return trip, even if they decide not to fight.

"See you around, Joashden Stalewaver."

"Goodbye, Eca Rend."

The man in white stepped back with a gentle but cunning smile and helped close the shelf behind them. The light of the room now blocked, Josh could now see a feint flickering glow coming from the bottom of the stairs.

"Josh?" Luce's voice echoed from below. "Is something wrong? What's taking you so long?"

"Nothing!" he answered. "I'm on my way."

It was a tight turn as he twisted his body to face the stairs. Slowly, eventually, he made it down to the end where the shaped stone walls gave way to rough dirt, and the path widened into a mine's tunnel.

Talia had pulled out a torch that lighted a red short ways down into the extending darkness. A rail track reached into the black like a never-ending hand extending into the night. Adelle was helping Luce onto a handcar with two opposing facing benches centred by a walking beam between. Josh was the last to climb onto the cart, taking the seat beside Luce and opposite Adelle. Once everyone was in the cart, she turned around to light a lamp at the facing side of the cart and snuffed out her torch, leaving the only source of light a beam that focused on the track.

"Let's get going," she said, placing a hand on the walking beam. She gestured for Adelle to do the same opposite.

The elf grumbled but followed the instruction. In tandem, the two pumped and pulled the beam and the cart began moving forward, screeching slightly as it shaved off the rust that had accumulated on the wheels. Soon, they were moving at a cruising speed, sparks flying off the steel wheels are random intervals.

"So," Adelle huffed out a single word as she pumped the cart. "Harvestfall."

"Right," Josh sighed. "Alright. So, what happens when a person dies?"

"They... decompose?" Luce answered confused. "What does this have to do with Harvestfall?"

"Everything," Josh told her. "When a body decomposes, any trace of seither gets expelled and returns to the earth, fusing with stones and pressure to become crystals."

"Yes..." Adelle puff, visibly starting to perspire from pumping the cart. "We know... basic biology."

"I'm surprised that you do." Josh managed to slip in the snide remark. "The Harvestfall Mine is where they buried the dead to collect crystals afterwards. It's a graveyard. A dumping ground for the dead of the war. It's said there are more bodies buried there than anywhere on The Walking Path."

"Those were the good old days," Talia puffed out as she let go of the beam.

Adelle did the same, releasing her hands from the pumping as the cart continued moving forward on momentum, slowly decelerating. Luce and Josh, seeing their queue, picked up where the previous two left on and began working the beam again.

Adelle asked Talia, "What do you mean were?"

Even Josh looked over. He remembered the first time he saw the Harvestfall Mine. The sight of corpses piled high to be buried and the stench that floated around forever stayed in his memory. It was then he truly pushed himself to escape from the continent and war, putting more of his life and body on the line with each attempt.

Josh continued through huffing breaths, "Yeah. You kept saying... it's worse now. How... is it worse?"

"When Lachesis took over, she found the natural process too slow. It took years for even one full crystal vein to grow and only in mass graves. But she realised that if you could get a body to decompose while it was still alive, the body will keep producing augmented seither and speed up the rate and amount of crystals produced. Then the crystals are used to make golems at an accelerated rate, driving the war machine."

Luce's eyes widened, a pale white falling over her face. "No..."

Their Guide looked away. "They opened three more mines. Any mages that were not of elements they needed or too weak to fight were... lobotomised and buried alive. They are kept on the verge of death for as long as possible. Sometimes days. Other times... seasons." Talia took a deep breath, paused, and turned to them. "Later on, we'll be going through the original mine. Once there, don't turn back, don't stop. There are guards everywhere but don't engage, no matter how outraged you feel. Keep walking. Don't. Stop." Her voice trembled on the last words.

They fell into a silence as the four took turns pumping the handcar. With nothing but rumbling steel beneath their feet hurtling across the tracks, they travelled towards the mine in anxious contemplation of what awaited them.

Josh took the time to look at the faces of his companions. Luce was white, on the verge of sickness with infliction. Opposite, Adelle scrunched her eyes in anger and lips twisted with disgust. Talia returned to her stoic poker face, looking as if nothing fazed her.

For Josh, he did not know how he felt. He had seen the original Harvestfall, and the thought of it possibly being worse never crossed his mind. He sat in a state of unease, disbelief rising. After a slow turn, a dot of light appeared in the distance. The exit was near and Talia snuffed out the lamplight. They released the balance beam and let the cart roll the last of the track, slowing to a stop before the route ended. They got off and walked the final few feet towards the light.

Before they even stepped out, the stench hit them. It smelled of familiar death. An arid odour or rot and waste combining the worst of a morgue and garbage dump assaulted them, burning their nose with each breath.

Adelle and Luce pulled up their scarf in an attempt to filter out the smell while Josh and Talia put on their full-faced gas mask. Even then, a slither of the whiff of death sipped through and he held back a gag.

At the entrance, Talia held up a hand. "Wait," she instructed, and they stopped short of exiting.

From where they stood, the path outside the exit faced a large boulder, winding leftwards and blocking off the line of sight to the mine.

A minute past in silence. Then ten. Finally, after close to half an hour, the tolling of bells signalled the start of the mine opening for the workday. Talia gave the workers a couple of minutes to flood in. After judging that the bustling noise level outside has reached a satisfactory level for cover, she stepped out to lead the way.

Josh stayed at the rear as they twine their way through the outcropping of large boulders. Looking back every other step, he watched as the entrance to the tunnels slowly camouflaged against the stones until it was no longer visible.

Finally, they stepped out onto a path that overlooked the mine and Josh nearly vomited in his mask.

Clink. Clank. Clunk.

Heads of people with eyes glazed over from lobotomy - protruded out from every part of the stone quarry - including the walls - wearing buckets of veils to keep out the flies that buzzed eagerly at scavenging the dying bodies.

Clink. Clank. Clunk.

Maggots leaked out from the ground alongside ooze of blood. Each head was surrounded by crops of crystal veins and paths were littered with carts filled with the rocks of harvested seither.

Clink. Clank. Clunk.

Miners walked around unfeelingly, eyes forward to hide their discomfort as they took pickaxes to crystals and sludge of food and medicine to the buried bodies to keep them alive longer. Some of them mined and worked with a feverish glint in their eyes, bought into the tale of greater good sold to them by Lachesis.

Clink. Clank. Clunk.

Picks on crystals tolled like the death knell of swords to armour. The Harvestfall had begun.

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A note from aden_ng

Author's Note: Hi everyone. Thank you for reading Tearha: Titan War, which will continue to release a new chapter every week on Friday until its completion. If you like what you've read so far, and would like to support my writing, you can buy one of my books at my website. Or you could check out my Patreon to help out for the long run. Of course, just sharing, commenting, and reviewing helps a bunch as well!

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aden_ng

Bio: Author of 'The Chronicles of Tearha' web serial novels. Weird guy.

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