Oskar crouched in the dark cave, blind. He kept his eyes closed, trying to force them to adjust more quickly to the darkness. Marent’s hand on his shoulder gave him a point of reference, and he was grateful to the dwarf. He’d fought off bandits, killed a few goblins, and helped Amnestria hunt their dinner a few times. A minotaur, however, was another thing entirely, and Oskar was nervous.
“They have long, tangled fur.” Amnestria had filled a small, fragile bottle with oil from their lantern. She capped it, then passed the bottle carefully to Marent. “Fire should do it. Light it up, let it panic, and once the flames die down slightly, we attack. Marent, you’re the only one that can see well enough in there. You get close – get Oskar close too – and lob the oil. Don’t forget to cover your eyes. Oskar, use a spark of fire to light it, and then get clear. Once Oskar’s out, Marent, you and I will block the cave entrance to keep it from running. Oskar, throw spells over our shoulders. We keep it in the cave, and hopefully it’ll be too blinded from the bright backlighting behind us to give us any trouble.”
Amnestria’s plan was a good one. They usually were; even if they sounded foolish at first, they mostly worked out in the end. The elf was much older than either of the men, and as such, held wisdom and experience belied by her usual carefree personality. Even so, Oskar couldn’t help that nagging feeling in his gut. He’d never liked being vulnerable, and being completely dependent on Marent to lead him into a dark cave with a smelly, ten-foot tall, man-eating monster would rattle anybody.
Marent had guided Oskar into the cave, and then drawn him down into a crouch. Placing a hand on Oskar’s shoulder, Marent leaned in close and whispered softly. “It’s sleeping. I’ll lead you forward, face you in the right direction. I see a good spot, so I’ll put you fifteen feet awa’ from the beast. Once I have you in position, I’ll move off and get on the other side of it.”
Oskar nodded. He may be blind, but Marent would be able to see the gesture easily. Not for the first time, Oskar wished that he was able to see in the dark like true dwarves. Humans seemed entirely too limited next to the other races. He could feel air moving past his face – the cave seemed to have a constant slight breeze of fresh air rushing through it, as if it was breathing. A lock of hair had escaped his braid and fallen across his temple, the wind was causing it to flutter slightly.
“I’ll tap the bottle wi’ my fingernail before throwing t’ gi’ you some warning. Ye’ll hear the bottle break when it impacts,” Marent continued. “Throw the flame as soon as you can – wi’ our luck, the beast is only half asleep and will be on it’s feet fighting wi’in a second.”
Oskar nodded again, a touch impatiently. Why was Marent going over this again? They’d discussed the details after Amnestria had laid out the bones of the plan. Did Marent think Oskar would have forgotten? Oskar felt a slight shift from Marent’s hand on his shoulder. The movement felt odd, he couldn’t quite tell what Marent had done. Brushed some dust off? A slight tickle along his cheek – wait. Marent was brushing that stray lock of Oskar’s hair back out of his face.
Oskar was surprised at the unexpected intimate gesture. Before today, Marent had barely touched Oskar, outside of brushing against him setting up camp, shoving him out of danger once or twice in battle, and teaching Oskar how to defend himself with his staff. Oskar hadn’t been sure if Marent thought of him as more than a friend. Apparently, he did.
“I would take it as a great personal favor if you promise to be careful.” Marent’s voice held an odd tone that Oskar had never heard before, though his words made his meaning clear. “I cannae like the fact that you must do yer part blind, and – just promise me, aye?”
He must be nervous. He never stumbles over his words. Marent had taken a risk by exposing his feelings to Oskar, with no indication of whether Oskar even shared similar inclinations. Amnestria was a terrible flirt, hitting on pretty men every time they stopped at a tavern. She had made her preferences crystal clear. Marent and Oskar, on the other hand, were both quiet and reserved. Neither had shown interest in anyone in the few years they’d worked and traveled together, and Oskar had often wondered about the striking dwarf. Marent’s vivid green eyes were a rarity among his people, and they seemed even more bright as they peered out from his coal black hair and beard. Perhaps Marent had caught Oskar looking, and come to the correct conclusions?
Oskar turned his head, facing towards where Marent’s voice had come from. He looked blindly, eyes searching the blackness in front of him. Marent’s face couldn’t be more than an inch or two away, and Oskar imagined he could feel the heat of the older man’s skin.
Not that much older, if you think about it, Oskar thought to himself. Marent was around seventy years old, making him a young adult in dwarven years. He’d never caught Marent looking at him as though he had any special interest, but that didn’t exactly prove anything. Maybe he was shy, afraid of being caught? If he truly was interested in Oskar, the dwarf now had a great chance to study Oskar’s features, at close range, with no chance of Oskar catching him looking.
Oskar’s face remained expressionless, though Marent wouldn’t feel held under such restrictions. There was nobody to see, he could be free with his countenance.
Oskar inclined his head slightly, gesturing with one hand. Marent seemed to understand, and Oskar felt the dwarf’s loose hair against his face as he turned. He raised a hand, cupping the back of Marent’s head gently, ostensibly to whisper directly into Marent’s ear, but Oskar was willing to admit his ulterior motives to himself.
“Only if you promise the same.” Oskar swallowed. He realized that his pulse had sped up as Marent’s hair brushed against his face. Marent let out a shaky breath, and Oskar realized that he had been nervous. “We’ll talk, aye? When Ness isna around, preferably.”
Marent let out a sharp breath, halfway to a laugh. Oskar felt him nod, and he smiled briefly before getting back to business.
“Which side will the exit be on?” Oskar whispered, his voice hoarse. He wished he’d thought to take a drink before coming in here. “Once I throw the flames, knowin’ which way to run would be nice.”
Marent moved again, and Oskar turned his face away, though he didn’t drop his hand yet. Marent’s hair was thick, but soft, with small bits of leaf caught up in the mass of it. He felt Marent’s breath against his cheek as he turned, and was suddenly very glad that the dwarf’s darkvision wouldn’t be able to pick up the blush rising to Oskar’s face.
“Ye’ll need t’ make a quarter turn t’ the left, then just run straight. the spot I’ve picked out even has a clear path out t’ where Ness is waiting. the flames should gi’ you enough light to see at least a bit.” Marent squeezed Oskar’s shoulder gently. “Don’t worry, ye’ll do well, lad.”
Marent drew back then, pulling Oskar up, and Oskar dropped his hand with a sigh. Marent took Oskar’s left arm, placing his other hand on Oskar’s back as he led the taller man forward. Oskar tried to ignore the shiver that ran down his spine at the touch, and stepped slowly, as quietly as he could manage. He left his eyes closed – no point in keeping them open. As they drew closer, Oskar could hear the deep breathing that emanated from the large beast. The cave continued to breathe, the air constantly circulating.
Sounds just like a bull. I wonder what kind of teeth it has – if it eats meat, probably incisors and canines. At least, I hope it does. If it doesn’t have sharp teeth, when it bites, it’ll hurt more-
Oskar cut that line of thought off sharply before he panicked himself, and focused on his own breathing. Slow. Steady. Calm.
They stopped, and Marent took Oskar by the hand, raising it and folding back three of Oskar’s fingers. When he withdrew, Oskar was left pointing into the darkness, presumably directly at the sleeping beast. Oskar nodded his understanding. Marent hesitated, and then patted Oskar’s back before moving away, leaving Oskar by himself. For several seconds Oskar could still hear faint sounds as Marent moved – he’d padded his armor, as silence was necessary at the moment, but the dwarf wasn’t nearly as stealthy as Amnestria. Within a moment, the noise faded, and Oskar felt even more lost in the darkness. He focused though, holding his hand steady. He waited, listening to the creature breathing.
There was a soft tink from the darkness to Oskar’s left. He tensed, bringing up his power as he began whispering the words to the Sparking Flame spell. A sudden tinkling sound of breaking glass, a grunt and a great heaving movement, and Oskar released the energy.
The flame glowed red through his closed eyelids, and Oskar opened his eyes a crack. He’d tailored the spell to shoot the flame out in a long thin line, and it should have caught on the loose, oil splattered hair of the beast. Oskar couldn’t tell if his aim had wavered from where Marent had pointed him, or if the beast had moved. Oskar caught enough of a glimpse in the two seconds of light to see that it hadn’t worked.
Marent yelled – he’d be blinded now, the flames killing his darkvision and leaving him vulnerable for several seconds. The plan had been to set the damn beast on fire – that would have provided enough light for Oskar to see his way out, and also for Marent, suddenly deprived of his darkvision, to begin covering Oskar’s retreat.
Without that continuing flame, all three of them were on the same level. Except for the minotaur, which was in it’s home turf, ten feet tall, and royally pissed off.
Oskar needed to try again to light the beast up. The first spell hadn’t worked, perhaps it wasn’t strong enough? Maybe the oil hadn’t gotten onto the minotaur's fur. He needed more fire.
Aiming wasn’t an issue at the moment. Oskar could clearly hear the beast roaring and thrashing around as it tried to find Marent in the dark.
“Move back! Towards the exit, clear the area!” Oskar yelled in Dwarven. He wasn’t sure if minotaurs had a spoken language, but he’d bet his entire purse they didn’t speak this one. “I’ll gonna light it up again. An’ cover yer eyes!”
“Now, lad!” Marent yelled, from a bit further to Oskar’s left. Oskar didn’t take the time to question, he simply spoke a word, and hurled a Fireball at the source of the grunting and roaring.
The Fireball spell was much more powerful than the Sparking Flame. With Sparking Flame, you could control the heat, intensity, and size of the fire. Casting the spell sent a lazy jet of fire from your outstretched hand. Oskar had tailored his spell for extra hot, but less intense, hoping the added heat would aid in igniting the beast’s fur. It hadn’t worked.
With the Fireball, he didn’t have to worry about tailoring anything. The spell was his most powerful offensive option. With a throwing motion, Oskar sent an apple-sized ball of white fire directly at the source of the roaring and snarling. He’d aimed well, and the fireball landed directly in the center of the beast’s chest. Upon impact, the flames expanded to engulf the front of the monster, sending a roaring whoosh of heat and wind throughout the cave.
He could see Marent – Marent’s eyes were covered by the arm not holding his hammer, and he was turning away, towards the exit. He called to Oskar, coughing and choking from the smell of burning hair. “Out, now! Hurry!”
Oskar turned as the beast fell, keening in agony. “Go, I’m righ’ behind ye!”
Marent ran, still half-blind and doubled over. He was headed somewhat toward the wide tunnel the cavern narrowed into, before becoming a narrow passageway. Oskar sprinted over, shoved him in the right direction, and then turned to look back. The monster was holding a large hammer, easily five feet long with a huge head on the end. As it reared up on it’s knees, flames licking up it’s chest and over it’s face, it bellowed in agony and fear before striking the cave wall with its hammer.
The blow rang through the cave like a bell, shaking the entire cavern with an unnatural tremor. Oskar’s feet went out from under him, and he had time to wonder if that hammer was enchanted before the cave started to rumble.
Oskar tried to climb to his feet – Marent’s stout form allowed the dwarf to keep his balance, and he didn’t turn as he groped his way out of the cavern and into the sharply turning passage that led out of the cave. The light dimmed drastically, and Oskar glanced back at the minotaur, to see that the beast had fallen on its face, smothering most of the flames before they spread from its chest.
Oskar slipped, falling painfully to his knees again as pebbles started to rain down. He looked up, the faint light from the flaming minotaur showed a large crack arcing from one side of the cavern to the other. Oskar threw himself to the side as the entire cave seemed to tilt--
Oskar took another drink of whiskey, staring blindly into the woods. He noticed that he was idly rubbing at his right leg, along the old scar that spanned his thigh. He balled his hand into a fist, willing himself to keep still.
“Th’ beast had some kind o’ enchanted hammer. He slammed it into the wall, and brought the cave down on us. Marent had made his way out, and didna realize I was still inside.”
Rando was a good listener. He tilted his head as Oskar spoke, his expression conveying interest or surprise at appropriate moments. He didn’t interrupt with questions or comments though. Oskar realized that Rando was probably doing it on purpose – the bard’s manner had put Oskar at ease, and he found himself relaying the story easily. Oskar was silent for a minute, but Rando remained patient, waiting.
“This next part is… difficult,” Oskar said, shifting in his seat. “I’m sure I had a concussion. It was dark, I was unconscious for some time, and the air wasna movin’ at all. Time passed, and I couldna tell how long I sat there.”
Oskar could see that Rando had raised his eyebrows, and backtracked.
“When the ceilin’ came down, I had tried t’ move next t’ the wall. I canna remember how close to the exit I’d gotten, only that I woke with a splittin’ headache, sitting up against the wall, wi’ a big rock in my lap.”