Sand crushed the air from Rum's lungs and buried itself deep in his nostrils. He had the sensation he was falling, twisting, limbs being pulled and weighed down by the crushing weight all around him. The world darkened, his thoughts regressing, his systems fighting to remain concious in the swirling world. There was a terrifying rushing in his ears, a horrific tumult of noise- Rum would have screamed if he had the air.
For the second time today, Rum was certain death was upon him. It was, if he had time to reflect, a slightly better death than being shanked by a hopping shark-bandit. But he didn't have time to think. Not about Annay and what she had been up to, not about his failed poems- he didn't have time for anything.
Sand. Sand. Sand.
It filled his lungs, it pushed against his eyes. Millions of tiny shards of sand, laying patiently on a beach, coming together like some great vast machine to strangle the life from his bones. He was nothing. He had always been nothing. And now he would be crushed to nothing, twisted and lost in the dark, cold sand on some nameless island, forevermore.
The lights began to flick off inside his mind-
There was a wet, sucking, schlorp and Rum found himself suddenly pinwheeling in the air. His head made a decisive smack into packed earth below him, and stars danced around, clouding his vision.
He decided to fight against the urge to black out, and promptly lost.
Rolling onto his back, hacking up gobs of wet sand onto his ruined shirt, Rum became vaguely aware that he was somewhere underground. Dim shadows and vague shapes surrounded him. He'd been passed out- but for how long, he had no idea.
"Here, Rum!" Molotov's voice was distant, somewhere below. Rum looked to the ceiling- the whirlpool that had sucked him down below had closed up, the sand holding up the ceiling packed tight once more. There was no telling how far he'd been pulled down into the earth. There was indeed, no telling where the bottom of the island was.
Islands within the Foggy Ocean, were similiar to icebergs. Giant floating chunks of rock, the bottoms sometimes several thousand kilometres beneath the bubbling waves. But there always WAS a bottom- if you weren't careful while digging, it was possible to accidentally create a hole down all the way down and out. Most Dwarven Mines ended up flooded, rather than filled with some unspeakable long-buried evil. Most Dwarves also had a pretty strong backstroke, for that same reason.
As for the bottom of the Foggy Ocean, well... Rum supposed the Gods probably knew what was down there. Maybe.
"Where are you, Molotov?" Rum called out. He took an exploratory step forward in the dark. "Where are WE?"
"We're below the beach, Rum ol' chum!"
Rum pursed his lips. "Describe your surroundings to me!"
"There's SAND, Rum!" It's like a beach, except-"
"Ok you can stop-"
"-except it's like we're BELOW IT!"
A different tactic was clearly needed. Rum thought for a moment. "Molotov! You can make fire with your magic, yes? Like ah- a torch or something?"
"Oh! Great idea!"
There was a sudden blinding light and Rum flinched, eyes flickering and adjusting. When he opened them again, his stomach lurched up, attempting to scramble up his throat to make a quick getaway. His feet were flush against the edge of a steep drop. It was a kilometre or more down into darkened catacombs. He let out a squeak of fear.
Very carefully, very slowly, Rum inched back away from the ledge. He crouched down, and balled himself up momentarily, as the rest of his body reckoned with the fact that he'd nearly strutted off a cliff in a dark.
"Rum? Are you up there somewhere? Clap once if you're still alive, twice if you're dead!"
Sadly, being traumatized had to wait. Rum eased himself back up to his feet and took a proper look around. He was in vast, cavernous ruins, unfamiliar pillars and entryways all around. His voice echoed over dust-covered sigils and inscriptions in the walls, terrible cracks in the packed earth- broken stone floors showed the wear of the centuries.
It was, if Rum was to hazard a guess, an ancient temple-city. Designed for ceremony and religion, shops and churches seemed to be built directly into the heavy rock walls. Staircases lead downward to lower courtyards, and bridges stretched across a deep crevasse in the earth, the same one he'd nearly walked over. All around, the rusted stone facades were covered in dirt and sand and dust. What the buildings had once been painted like Rum could not say- all that remained was a dull blue sheen on the ruined house exteriors.
Rum peeked out over the ledge he'd nearly nosedived of off, to find Molotov on a bridge below. The wizard was gawking at the surroundings, his chipper voice echoing as he spoke. A glowing red flame was clutched in his palm, enveloping his entire right hand in flickering flame.
"Wow, I would have settled for a chest of gold, or a skeleton! But this is pretty nifty too!"
Rum shook his head, freeing clods of dirt and sand from his hair. Try as he might, the idea of nearly suffocating in sand was not, in his mind, "nifty".
"Molotov, how soon can you do some sort of... wizardly spell to get us above ground?" Rum said.
The wizard looked perplexed. "What? I thought this was the sort of thing you were after, Rum ol' chum?"
"Falling half to my death, lost in some ghost city buried beneath a beach? Surrounded by ancient ruins, from who knows what peo-" Rum stopped and frowned. He suddenly realized, this WAS exactly sort of the thing he was after. In theory.
This could jump-start my story- all this ancient history, it's bound to knock SOME inspiration loose and flowing in my brain! If I can just stop being scared out of my mind...
"Is there some way I can... I don't know, get down there to you?" Rum said.
After a few minutes of bumbling around, Rum located a stairwell, winding around and down, to the bridge Molotov stood upon. The limp-brained wizard beamed a toothy smile and snapped Rum a salute as he approached.
"You don't, uh, have to do that," Rum said quickly. The fireball, still flickering, was precariously close to the wizard's face. As Molotov pulled his hand away, Rum was certain the wizard's eyebrows were... smaller.
"So what's the plan? Find the treasure chamber, loot it for goodies? Slay some mummies, rescue a princess?" Molotov asked. Rum looked around, the fireball illuminating the gloomy crypt.
"Well, I'm not sure we'll find much in the way of treasure down here. But I er... suppose we should go find something interesting? There has to be some sort of... central chamber?"
"Hey, yeah! That'd be a good place to do some of your writing, eh?" Molotov smiled.
"Sure. Why not, I guess that's the plan."
The loose, flimsy, terrible plan...
As Rum journeyed farther down into the dark of the crypt-city, bathed in the shadows and cobwebs, calm eventually overtook his intense fear. Where once he found himself yelping at every crack of pottery shards beneath his feet, or the drip of sand from the cavernous ceiling high above, the effort expended staying in a heightened stay of pants-filling terror was simply too much. His coin-like mind flipped, and he was once more overwhelmed by a sense of purpose and adventure, assured he was in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing.
There's nothing living here, not for a thousand years or more. It's all just cobwebs. Nothing to be scared of! And even if there WAS, this is what I set out to do, right? Beef myself up, journey into the unknown to become stronger with both pen and sword! Warrior-poets aren't afraid of anything, except dangling participles!
Looking around the ruins, cracks sprouted in every corner.
Molotov led the way, sure of step, like an eager lemming in search of a cliff. The pathways and branching bridges gradually sloped downward, doorways directly leading in and out of the rocky cliff-faces, always on the descent. Rum worked his way through abandoned store-rooms, buildings that might have once been classrooms or mess halls. Once, a bridge spanning the crevasse was overgrown with vines, glowing in the murky dark with phosphorescent green-light. Cockroaches and beetles, unused to the glow of Molotov's hand-torch, skittered away and out of sight. Shards of broken pottery, dust-covered, moth-eaten parchment, decaying shelves and bits of rusted-metal, original purposes and value long-forgotten.
Finally, after almost an hour, Rum peered over the side of a ledge to see icy-clear water covering white cobblestones below. They'd left the dirt and sand behind, high above. At the bottom of the crevasse the ground was half-flooded, ice-cold water up to their ankles. But the waters remained clear, their feet only stirring up the dust and sand as they passed- it did not churn and bubble, like that salty, eternally burbling cauldron, the Foggy Ocean.
"Salty, eternally burbling cauldron..." Rum murmured to himself.
"A salty cauldron? Sounds like when I take a bath. Heyooo, haha!" Molotov raised up his free hand, smiling like a jackass and anticipating a high-five.
Rum did not give him a high-five. Instead, he walked away, following the cobblestone visible beneath the waters.
"It's a pathway," Rum suddenly realized. "Everything in the city, it's flowing towards something. Look!" He pointed in the gloom- other bridges and tunnels emerged out of the cliff-sides nearby, but all flowed into the cobblestone walkway. It stretched away into the dark ankle-deep waters beyond. Excitedly, Rum splooshed and splished his way forward, Molotov following.
As they continued along the path the carved crevasse walls grew closer and closer, until Rum found himself running down a water-logged corridor only a few metres wide, the crevasse ceiling coming together above his head into a sturdy ceiling. Empty slots on the tunnel wall denoted places where torches would have once been held. The minutes passed by- Molotov panted, trying his best to keep up- but something had overtaken Rum. His heart pounded in his chest, a sense of promise at the end of the passageway driving him forward.
As the path narrowed, the carvings and drawing in the wall increased in detail. Whereas before Rum had seen only markings and vague iconography, a language he had no hope in identifying, now the fire illuminated complex paintings untouched by the dust and sand that had assailed the city above. Drawings of golden figures, each stylized with a singular glowing eye, prostrating themselves before a great temple filled with food, gems, riches.
Oh this is too good to be true- an ancient city, hidden beneath a desolate beach! Chambers of gold and silver, ancient relics and wonderful things! A lost culture, forgotten Gods, esoteric wisdom and wizardry, left behind for thousands of years and found by my hand! This'll be perfect to include in my stories!
His mind was churning, adjectives and verbs flowing easily through his mind. When they reached the end of the passageway, he'd be ready. The inspiration was flowing, not an inch of hesitation within his noodly frame.
Suddenly, the walls abruptly widened to either side. Rum skidded to a halt, arms pinwheeling, Molotov abruptly slamming into his behind.
Molotov's hand, still covered in fire, smacked against his butt. Rum yelped like he'd been struck by a hot pan, leaping several feet into the air. He went down hard in the water, toppling over Molotov in the abrupt watery chaos. The fireball vanished below the water, gutted like a torch.
Darkness, unlike anything Rum had ever experienced before, surrounded him, choked him at all sides. It was as if the universe had suddenly been snuffed out, leaving him alone in a void. Rum felt all warmth and courage leave his shrimpy frame. He froze in place, soaking wet on his cooling butt.
"M-Molotov?" Rum stammered. The wizard spit water and sloshed back to his feet somewhere in the void behind him.
"Here, Rum! Oh wow, would you look at that? It's amazing!"
Rum hesitated for a moment. "Molotov? What are you talking about?"
"Why- it's right in front of us, my earnest explorer-in-chief! My vibrant vagabond, my plucky poet! Doesn't it just take your breath away? Doesn't it just make you say, 'Oh wow, I'm sure glad I'm looking at this with my eye-holes?'"
"You can see in the dark?!" Rum sputtered. "Since when could you see in the dark?"
In the inky void, Molotov's voice sounded slightly hurt. "We've been adventuring together for weeks, Rum! DAYS, Rum! I thought you'd have at least taken some interest in my life and hobbies."
"Seeing in the dark is not a HOBBY," Rum said, splashing to his feet. "Is this another one of your spells?"
"Oh, not exactly." Molotov paused, and spoke slowly. "It's hard to explain... but you know how the sun is... really, really, bright?"
There was a pause. Rum filled it with an exhausted huff. "Yes. I know the sun is really, REALLY, bright."
"Well, you see!" Molotov continued happily. "I just THINK about how bright it is. I visualize a sun, where there isn't one. And my eyes, see, they're so used to SEEING a sun, I trick them into believing it's there, so I-"
"Yes, Rum ol' chum?"
"Do the fireball spell."
There was a sudden flicker, then a burst of red flame illuminating the room. Rum looked up- and his jaw dropped open.