For once, I slept somewhat decently. The sheer terror that had been coursing through me for the past few hours led to a spectacular crash once I felt like I could sleep, and I didn’t mind the rocky pillows. Or the rocky mattress. Or…
Either way, after tying off [Mantle of the Stars] with [Persistent Casting] to make sure we had something of a shield against, say, invisible gas attacks in the night, I was out like a light.
Ned woke me up for my turn on watch, and I woke up with the biggest crick in my neck. I stretched it out, noting that I was full up on mana, and my shields hadn’t gone down.
“Hey, Healer Elaine.” Ned whispered to me as I got up. “Mind letting the shield down for a minute? The orc’s trying one last attack.”
It took me a moment to process what he was saying, and I grinned. My grin rapidly vanished as my own stomach turned over, the orc indeed having one last fight in him.
“Yeah sure.” I whispered back, trying to be quiet enough so nobody else would hear. “Go for it.”
I dropped the shield, and noted with a raised eyebrow that Ned summoned a little ball of light for himself.
That - argh! He’d been asking me to keep doing the lights, but he’d been perfectly capable of helping out this entire time!
I put the shield back up after he passed through, and noticed the light fading as he wandered down a tunnel.
Cripes. Just how bad did he think this was going to be?
His light eventually settled on a dim glow, then after a while started to flicker rapidly. It went out entirely at one point, and after a few seconds, I started to get up, somewhat concerned about him. I’d just taken a few steps to the shield, when the light went back on.
Well, I wasn’t going to disturb Ned when he was having that much trouble.
After another minute or so, the light came back, brighter and brighter, and Ned stiffly walked around the corner, back to where we were. His legs were like boards, and he had a glassy, thousand-yard stare on his face.
“Ned? Ned, you ok?” I asked him, dropping the shield.
He slowly turned towards me, and gave me a single, stiff nod.
I would’ve loved to stay and chat, but my stomach was rebelling against me as well. The meat had been purified and cooked, so it seemed that fundamentally orcs were as disagreeable in death as in life.
And yes, I could see exactly why Ned had gotten such a distance, and had taken so long.
While orcs were staying on the menu - I wasn’t going to starve myself - they were now ending up near the bottom of said menu.
I spent the rest of my shift getting a moderately good [Persistent Casting] of [Dance with the Heavens] arranged, and thanked my lucky stars that I could run more than three skills at once with [Persistent Casting]. I decided to make my casting this time be for anyone “on-touch”. It would be a problem if a hostile orc managed to start grappling with me, but at the same time it meant I could just touch anyone on the team, and instantly heal them with a strong image behind it.
I had the brief image of me trying to play catch with a dwarf’s head - I touch it, they live, I miss, they die.
I shook my head clear of that picture, and kept working on my image. When I thought it was good enough, I swapped shifts and went back to sleep.
The morning - well, the time when we all finished waking up, being fully rested - rolled around soon enough, and Drin had finally finished making armor for everyone.
“Here you go!” He said, handing me over replacement parts for my gear. “I tried to mimic what you had, but I had nothing for your shin guards.”
Indeed, instead of the stout armor the dwarves used, Drin had tried to grow me a set of armor that was more like my own. My left vambrace was an exact mirror of my right, although he hadn’t quite gotten the helmet or shin guards done right. They were a little blockier than I was used to, a little thicker, but I wasn’t going to let that get in my way.
“Thank you Drin!” I said, happily hugging him.
“Drin.” Ned said, nodding along.
I gave him a weird look, but Glifir interrupted. I started getting my replacement armor on.
“I think we’re all ready to go! I’ve got an initial pathway planned out.” He said, pulling up the map. “Right, we’re here.” He said, pointing to a spot. “And I noticed an upramp here, which I think is our best shot at going up. Any objections?”
I waited to see everyone else shake their heads before shaking my own. It was too easy as the leader to set the tone, and have people not speak up as a result.
“Right, let’s get moving. I’ll take point again, Ned’s in the middle, Fik and Drin with Ned, and Glifir, you’ll be running around, scouting around us. I plan on moving slowly, to give you enough time to check side passages. If you need something, yell at me, and I’ll walk back to you. Sound good?”
“...Yes?” Ned asked.
“Ned, is there a problem?” I asked, looking at him.
He gave me a vacant look.
“No?” He answered, somewhat hesitantly.
“Right! Let’s go then!” I said, only to stop.
Good leaders asked for directions when they were completely lost.
“Err, Glifir, what way am I going again?” I asked.
“Left, then down the third passage on your right.” He said.
… I think the moving plan might need some revisions.
“Ned, is everything alright?” Fik asked Ned as I started to head down the passage.
“... Yes, I am ok.” Ned said after a moment. “Just feel weird.”
I wanted to offer some words to Ned, but what would I say? “Yeah Ned, you’re acting super weird?” He was finally starting to be nicer, and he was probably ok. Being a healer meant he could fix most physical problems on his own. I’d probably insult him terribly if I offered to heal him instead.
I’d try to discreetly heal him next time I brushed near. But if he said he wasn’t feeling great, and that he was ok? Eh, not much I could do with that.
He did decide to show off his light skill though, so what I was mentally calling the “reinforcement team” had their own source of light.
We started to wander through the hallways, and the number of traps sharply decreased. We hit a few dead ends, needed to reverse course a few times as Glifir noted different directions seemed to lead more up than others.
There was a disturbing lack of monsters. Glifir noted the occasional slime here and there, but were generally not in our way, nor chasing after us.
We didn’t see a point in trying to kill them. They weren’t food.
“Food!” Drin yelled, and I heard a stomping foot echo through the hallways. I doubled back, only to see him pick up a bug off the floor and examine it.
“Want it?” Drin said, offering it to me with a smirk.
I was no wilting daisy. I’d eaten worse before.
Thank all the gods and goddesses - ok, and I suppose Night - for making Ranger Academy.
“Sure!” I said, happily grabbing the bug out of his hand before he could retract his offer. Down the hatch it went!
Wasn’t great, but it was food. Gave me terrible heartburn.
The look on his face was great though.
“Nobody ever takes me up on eating bugs.” He sulked and kicked the dirt.
I stuck my tongue out at him.
“Tough luck!” I said.
“Do humans regularly eat bugs?” Fik asked me.
“Nah, but Rangers all need to as part of our training. Makes us think about it and remember they exist.”
A lightbulb went off, in super slow motion.
“Drin… how many bugs have you seen down here?” I asked him.
“Hmmm? That was the - oh! I see what you’re saying!” Drin said, getting all excited.
“What’s she saying?” Ned asked curiously.
“I haven’t seen bugs until now. Now I’m seeing them! That must mean we’re getting closer!” Drin excitedly told us.
“Yay bugs!” I said, throwing my hands up in the air.
“Yay bugs.” Ned echoed.
“Let’s get out of here!” Fik said.
Glifir wandered over, and had clearly heard the conversation.
“I do think we’re near an exit, look.” He said, generating the map with his Mist. It was getting fairly large, with all sorts of twists and turns.
“See this portion here?” He pointed out, near the edge of the “explored map” as I liked to think of it. It looked vaguely like a hump coming out of the rest of it. “I think we’re actually in one of the mountains right now, back above ground. There should be an exit somewhere.”
I looked at it. If I squinted just right, I could maybe see the mountain shape.
I kept studying the map as the dwarves got cheerful.
“That’s a lot of cave-ins.” I said, noting how many paths Glifir had tried that ended up with cave-ins.
“Hey, yeah, Elaine’s right.” Fik said, studying the map.
“What do you want me to say? They’re all cave-ins, I promise, you can check.”
“We should!” Drin said. “What if the Khazads collapsed the entrances behind them, and freedom’s just a few rocks away?”
We looked at each other, then at Glifir.
“Bring us to the nearest cave-in that looks promising!” Drin said.
“Yeah!” Ned added in.
Glifir looked down at the map, and grinned.
“Let’s get out of here!” He said.
We ran to the cave-in, heedless of potential traps. We hadn’t seen one in ages, and my theory of them being orc-generated and only around their territory was reinforced.
We got to a cave-in, and slowed down. The issues were still present. We still had a lot of rock to move. We still didn’t know if shifting the rocks would bring the whole thing down on us. None of us had any skills relating to this sort of work, with Fik’s Gravity magic being the only thing close.
The lure of freedom and escape called to us, and with barely a word, we unanimously decided to risk it.
Drin, Glifir, and Fik were all at least half-physical Classers, and one of the benefits of physical classers was the flexibility. They didn’t need a [Move Rocks] skill to get through rocks, they could just physically pick them up and move them.
Or, as I got out of their way and watched, I thought one of the benefits to being a pure magic Classer was I got out of chores like these.
Ned walked up to the rocks with everyone else.
“Can I help?” He said, getting strange looks from the rest of us.
“Nah, you’re fine, there’s not enough room for four.” Fik said.
“Oh ok.” Ned said, coming back and finding a seat near me.
I gave him a look.
“You sure you’re ok…?” I asked him, subtly brushing his shoulder and blasting a full-powered [Dance with the Heavens] through him. My mana dropped a few dozen points, but I wasn’t quite sure if there was damage I’d just healed, or if there was a tiny scrape from all the tunnel wandering that I’d just healed, with an inefficiency penalty from Ned being a dwarf.
Ned and I sat back as Glifir and co started to haul the rocks out of the cave-in.
I shifted from foot to foot, my eyes drilling holes in the back of their heads. I couldn’t wait. I wanted to get out. I needed to get out from this stone tomb we’d found ourselves in. I needed to breathe fresh air, to feel sunlight on my face again. I’d been keeping it together, because breaking down did me no good, but I hated being down here, trapped.
So I was staring, hoping that through sheer force of will I could make them move faster, that I could see a crack of daylight that much sooner.
I tapped the three dwarves, and hit them with [Sunrise] every time one passed, invigorating them and filling them with energy. No slowing down with me on watch! Full energy, get the rocks out of the way! I made sure [Shine] was nice and bright, and occasionally I was asked to move so they’d get better light.
Not nearly enough attention was paid to the ceiling, and the possibility of rocks falling and killing everyone though.
Yet, far too soon, they stopped.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, stepping up.
Fik was tracing along the stone with his fingers.
“See this?” He asked, and we all leaned in.
“What am I seeing?” Glifir asked.
“There’s no seam. Even though these are two different types of rocks.” Fik said.
I looked at the rocks. One seemed to be completely different from the other one, but I knew somewhere between jack and shit about rocks. For all I knew this was normal.
“Ok?” I asked, not getting it.
“No, the whole thing.” Fik said, tracing his finger quickly along the seam, all the way up to the ceiling, down around the wall, and back to the floor. “This is all one rock.”
“Someone deliberately sealed this off.” I said, stating the obvious.
“Yes. Bad.” Ned said. “We need to find a way out.”
Ned was rapidly moving from weird to “what is wrong with you?” but like, what could I do about it? Keep my distance, and sleep with one eye open just in case he was in the middle of cracking or going insane, and going to murder us all in our sleep.
Ned was totally getting the “full night’s sleep” whenever we took a long rest next, just so somebody was also awake. I was also totally going to sleep in my [Mantle], while also using it as a shield. Benefit of a higher-level skill - I could make my shield even bigger, even more complicated.
Everyone confirmed for themselves that the passage was indeed completely sealed, and everyone made an effort to break through.
I considered using my [Wall Buster] gem here. This was almost the textbook situation for it. Trapped inside, only a thin layer between me and freedom? The temptation was so strong I nearly went for it, damn all the rocks that would fall all around me once I’d done it. I might be able to get a small space between the falling rocks to survive in, and the dwarves might be able to dig me out before I died in some other way.
However… it wasn’t quite urgent enough, or our situation dire enough, for me to risk it. I did make a mental note that if we got desperate, if we were on the brink of death, it might be worth it.
I banished the thought of letting another dwarf take the risk. No. I was the toughest, the most likely to survive. I wouldn’t sacrifice someone else to clear the way for the rest of us. Not unless things got worse.
The rest of the dwarves had their own methods that they wanted to try.
I personally stayed well away from Drin when he tried ramming his way through. Something about the idea of rocks falling on me in a mine spoke to me on a deep, primal level, and I wanted nothing to do with his nonsense.
I personally tried to laser through for about half a second, before declaring it futile.
“Right, it seems like this passage is plugged. Do we want to try to clear another passage, or keep wandering until we find an exit or the Khazad dwarves?” I asked.
“Try another one.” Drin said, practically frothing at the mouth that he hadn’t been strong enough to practically move an entire mountain.
“If one’s plugged, someone did it.” Fik reasoned out loud. “We’d need to clear each blocked passage, and only then hope we found one someone missed. Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky.”
“We should find more people.” Ned said.
“And food.” Glifir added.
That sealed it for me.
“Look, we’re not finding any food here, and digging out boulders is heavy, hungry work. I can’t imagine any reason why someone would seal the exits of the tunnel. However, we gotta work with what we have, which is sealed tunnels. Glifir, any chance you’ve found vents to the outside?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I’ve seen a few, but with no Toke, we can’t widen them at all.”
I mentally cursed, as I’d forgotten that part.
“Right, we’re going to keep looking.” I said, and we were off, through the mines.
It was dull, tedious traveling. At one point I tripped a crude trap, where three stone spears tried to skewer me. We reversed directions at that point, figuring that we’d reached the edge of orc territory.
Several “days” passed, with only the occasional insect for food. Drin was getting real popular as he found them, and shared them out. We even forced him to turn over a rare bug he didn’t have in his collection for nourishment.
I think he found a second one, and didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t going to force the issue though.
Ned kept acting weird, and I decided that he needed more sleep.
Finally, after endless tunnels, and only Glifir’s reassurance that, yes, we were exploring new parts of the mine - he had his great big fancy map to prove it, and I think he was secretly thrilled about being able to make such a large map - I sprung a new trap.
Four sets of metal wires, each at a different height, whipped towards me, powerful enough to activate [Bullet Time]. I threw up my shield, protecting myself, and the highest wire completely missed me. It wrapped itself in complicated loops, tightening to an impossible-to-unravel knot.
I did not want to be in the middle of that wire as it became a knot.
The remaining three wrapped around my shield, and started to squeeze in. They weren’t strong enough to break my shield, but they were strong enough to drain my mana at a good rate.
“Help!” I yelled, the reinforcement team hurrying along.
Alas, the last wire was too low, and I’d summoned my shield too close to me for me to be able to just drop to the floor, and let the wires finish their business above me.
I looked at my mana. Still dropping, but I’d be fine. Just to make sure, I finally blew my [Summon Knife] gem. I carefully unraveled part of [Mantle], letting my hands out with the knife, and started to saw on the wires.
It was a bit of a silly gem at times, but I appreciated it all the more in situations like this where I absolutely needed something sharp. No idea if it’d work, metal against metal and all that, but I wasn’t going to risk it.
Everyone else came around the corner, and with some effort, managed to break the metal wires.
“Thanks everyone, that was close!” I said, meaning it.
That trap had the potential to kill me. If it didn’t cut through me, if it instead just bound and strangled me? I wouldn’t be able to break free with my measly strength, and I’d totally die. I needed to reconsider how I did this whole “trap-finding” business. Some traps had the potential to kill me, regardless of my shields or healing prowess.
“Ah, it’s what we’re here for. I’m pretty sure one of us would’ve died to those traps without you around.” Drin said, patting my shoulder fondly.
I cracked a grin at him.
“Do you know what this means?” I asked, bending down and picking up some of the wire.
“What?” He asked, seemingly more to entertain me than actually wondering.
“Evidence of someone new!”