The cavern was vast and silent without Cale and Ak’bis. Eldan shivered involuntarily, dropping one end of his stave to the ground with a thunk. The sound vanished into the massive space and he looked up at the pinpricks of light overhead, wondering at the ceiling’s height. A glimmer at the corner of his eye finally drew Eldan’s attention back to the water. The underground lake radiated cold like a physical presence, a barrier he would have to cross at the shoreline.
Eldan felt his compulsion to enter the water draining as he stood in the cavernous space, leaving only mistrust and dread. The attack in the river had left him terrified of unknown depths. Even now, staring into perfectly clear water, all Eldan could think about was the dark, hidden crevices between stones at the bottom. The wavy tendrils of light and shadow began to resemble the undulating ripples of eels. At the lake’s center, rounded stones looked like pale, bulging heads laying in wait.
The water’s surface was glassy, without a hint of movement. Eldan crept down the bank, startling to a stop when he dislodged several pebbles, which clattered down the shore and rolled to a stop in the shallows. Ripples from the disturbance ran across the water, disappearing into the distance. After a moment Eldan crouched down, searching for flat stones. When he had gathered a handful he stood back up, turning one stone until his finger hooked the edge in a comfortable grip. He pulled back his arm, slinging the stone with a side-arm throw so it skipped, bouncing across the water. After four skips the stone wobbled and Eldan watched its slow, tumbling, descent to the bottom.
Eldan skipped one stone after another, gaining distance as he relaxed from the familiar activity. Stone skipping was one of the few skills taught to him by his father, a rare sweet memory, unmarred by conflict. He remembered watching his father’s impossibly long throws in awe, and the pride he felt when he made his first skip. Now, his last throw skipped across the perfectly calm surface until he could no longer count the bounces, vanishing far across the lake. Eldan let out a breath as the surface stilled to glass again, dropping his pack and sitting on the bank to unlace his boots.
The water was frigid when he stepped in, his feet immediately numbing with cold. The clear water gave the illusion that he could reach the bottom with a short dive, but watching his skipping stones sink had proven the water was much deeper than it looked. He would need to bear the cold and, if he wanted to explore the large cluster of rocks at the lake’s center, he would need to breathe. He rubbed his arms briskly to warm up and stepped back out of the water.
With no alternative, Eldan self-consciously stripped down to his undershorts. He felt exposed and vulnerable, disquieted by the thought that someone or something might be watching him. He caught a glimpse of his reflection at the water’s edge, green eyes staring back at him under bushy eyebrows. His wavy hair hung wildly around cheeks that had gotten thinner in his short time at Court, making his face angular. His gaze dropped to the jagged, angry scars on his stomach, and he quickly looked away.
Frustrated by the vast, cold silence, Eldan rushed into the lake, diving beneath the surface when it reached his waist. He breached, gasping from the shockingly cold water, then struck for the center with fast, choppy strokes. Slowly, his rigid muscles relaxed, his back straightening and arms lengthening. He kept his eyes open, scanning the waters for any movement other than his own.
Eldan felt his arrival at the lake’s center without question. His entire body hummed with resonance, like a plucked string matching the pitch of a tuning fork. He stopped, treading water far above the luminescent stones. Unsure what to do next, Eldan dropped just beneath the surface and exhaled, then tried to draw in a breath of water. His body instinctively rebelled against the idea and after a brief struggle, he ended up swallowing the water instead. Sputtering, he rose to draw in another breath of air, exhaling at the surface this time before sinking to try again.
Climbing to the surface after multiple failures, Eldan faced the realization that his natural defenses against breathing water were overpowering. Forcing himself past that wall would mean effectively drowning himself, diving too deep to possibly resurface in time. He slapped the water in frustration, unwilling to give up the safety net of proximity to the surface. Steeling himself, he tried again, emptying his lungs completely and treading just under the water until his body screamed for oxygen. He opened his mouth to inhale but could not force his airway open. Desperate, he jerked his head up, sucking in a lungful of air.
Staring into the depths as his breathing and heartbeat slowed, Eldan resigned himself to diving past the point of no return. His mind wormed with doubt, telling him him that his memories of breathing water were impossible. Pushing the thought away, he inhaled as deeply as he could and dove. He swam straight down, intent on gaining as much depth as possible before the oxygen in his lungs was expended. His ears and sinuses began aching with pressure as he descended. He had known the lake was deep, but the bottom remained distant even as his stomach started spasming with the urge to breathe. Stubbornly, he crawled on towards the rocks that now loomed as monoliths beneath him.
Spots appeared in Eldan’s vision and his body clutched in anguish, stopping his descent. Rolling over to look toward the surface, he began kicking upward as his instincts took over. He filled his mouth with water, failing again in an attempt to inhale. He began thrashing ineffectually as panic set in, making no progress up or down. His thoughts were thick and remote, stuttering through the pain of asphyxiation and trying to remain conscious. He tried forcing a reflexive inhalation, throwing a slow, clumsy punch into his stomach. Enclosed in darkness, his jerky movements slowing to a stop, Eldan began drifting, limp, toward the bottom.
He slammed back to awareness with excruciating pain in his head and chest, feeling like daggers of ice were thrust behind his eyes. The agony was blinding and he struck out wildly at the water around him, only vaguely understanding what was happening. When his hands felt only empty water he grabbed his head and screamed in pain, stilling when he felt the silent cry rushing past his hands in a stream of water. He lifted his head, blinking back tears and breathing deeply.
Eldan’s vision slowly cleared as he endured the brutal transition to breathing water, and then it crystallized, bringing the underwater landscape into perfect focus. His leaden limbs lightened and heat began trickling through his body, radiating out from his chest. He laughed silently, kicking his legs joyfully and raising a fist in victory.
Eldan had drifted about half of the remaining distance to the lake floor, and now he jackknifed and dove down to finish the descent. He was energized, each breath making his movements faster and more effortless. The pain and pressure in his ears vanished, and he somersaulted and corkscrewed as he swam. He touched the lake bottom with his hands, then performed a backflip to land on his feet, grinning uncontrollably. His body had the perfect amount of buoyancy, requiring no effort to stay planted on the bottom but light enough to rise easily. Experimentally, he ran a short distance across the floor, striking off, tucking into a flip and landing at a stop.
Finally, Eldan turned to face the stone monoliths. They towered over him like buildings, alive with tendrils of flickering light, forming and reforming in inscrutable patterns. He walked cautiously toward the nearest stone, reaching out and placing his hand on the surface. As soon as he touched the stone lights raced to converge around his hand, flickering curiously around his fingertips. He watched as one light darted up his finger, then shot up his arm. He jerked his hand back immediately but the light remained, zig-zagging down his torso and racing down his leg, then disappearing as it ran up his back. He caught sight of it again when it sped over his shoulder and back down his arm, coming to a rest at his fingertip and blinking insistently. He reached out slowly, touching his finger to the stone again, watching as the light darted away. He followed it with his eyes as it raced up the stone face, disappearing over the top edge. Shaking his head, he stepped back to begin exploring his way around the base of the huge stones.
The stones covered a span of the lakebed similar in size to the entire Court of Keepers. Eldan estimated it took him about half a bell to circumnavigate the area, arriving back where he started. The stones sat in a cluster, as though they had been dropped there in a fistful by a colossal hand. During his walk around the perimeter he had seen a number of caverns and crevices large enough to walk into upright, and more that he could swim into horizontally. These were lit from within with the same luminescence that covered the rock faces. He hadn’t yet worked up the courage to explore one, but had peeked in to find the walls covered with light filaments performing their dance of patterns.
Eldan swam up the side of the stone face he had first approached, landing lightly on the top. Lights ran up to form around his feet but none transferred to his body this time. He walked across the surface, watching with fascination as each footstep lit up in turn. Peering over the edge of the stone, he saw that the luminescence was concentrated at the center of the cluster. A path seemed to wind down between the stones, leading toward the bottom. He crouched, leaning forward and hanging his head over the edge, trying to see what lay at the path’s end. With a flash of movement something large and living shot up from the deep recesses, nearly colliding with his face. He flailed backwards, landing in a seated position and scrambling to kick off, swimming backward rapidly. The creature followed him immediately, and to his horror he saw the blunt nose and gaping, fanged mouth of an eel.
The eel was ribboning rapidly toward him, its mouthful of needle-like fangs jutting forward. It was a dark, muted green, speckled with orange, and larger than any eel Eldan had ever heard of. Its head was half the size of his own, made larger by the lower jaw hanging distended, wide enough to easily fit an arm or lower leg inside. The undulating body was as thick as his thigh, flattening to a wriggling, finned tail in the distance.
Eldan backpedaled, trying to get as far as possible from the eel’s cavern in the hope that it would retreat. The eel seemed intent on Eldan’s face, insistently shooting forward so that its snout nearly bumped his nose. Eldan swiped at it wildly, trying to bat it away, but each time it came coiling back around to try again. Eldan was hopelessly outmatched in speed and maneuverability in the open water. Glancing back over his shoulder to look for somewhere he could retreat or hide, he turned back to find the eel waiting for him, so close that its bottom teeth grazed his chin.
Eldan froze, staring wide-eyed, afraid to even take a breath. The eel’s small, beady eyes stared back, and it slowly turned its head one way and then the other to give him a hard look with each eye in turn. When it was finished, the eel snapped its mouth shut, its face setting into what Eldan could only describe as a satisfied expression. It moved backward with a flick of its tail, undulating in place for a moment, then turned back toward the glowing stones.
Eldan went limp with relief, letting himself sink toward the lakebed as he watched the eel swimming away. After a moment the eel folded back to look at him, jerking its head back twice in an unmistakable “follow me” gesture. Eldan froze again in bewilderment, continuing in his fall to the bottom. The eel coiled in a graceful circle, spinning several times in a perfect ring before unfurling with a fluttering motion. It gestured again for Eldan to follow, a ribbon of light flickering down its long body.
Eldan’s feet touched the bottom and reluctantly, he bent his knees and kicked off, swimming after the eel. The eel’s mouth was slowly gaping open again as it waited, and Eldan bit back his fear and revulsion. When he drew closer the eel began swimming ahead again, looking back frequently to make sure Eldan was following. When they reached the stones the eel swam straight up the rock face, nearly touching the surface. Lights rushed to mark its passage, tracing sinuous lines up the vertical stone. The eel’s length was startling seen from this direction, extending nearly three times Eldan’s height.
Eldan ascended while the eel circled at the top. He trailed his hand along the stone as he kicked upward, watching the luminescent filaments swarm. When he touched down on the surface the eel dove into the opening between the stones, disappearing from sight. As Eldan walked forward it poked its head over the edge, looking like a predator lying in wait. It glided partway out of the hole and arced in a diving motion, then turned back to Eldan and wriggled impatiently. Eldan held up his hands placatingly and stepped to the edge, holding the eel’s gaze. Apparently satisfied that he would follow, the eel dove back down, the stones lighting as it passed to mark the pathway. Eldan sat down on the stone lip, dropping in feet-first when the eel’s tail flicked out of view.
Eldan soon realized he should have taken the eel’s direction to dive in headfirst literally. The passage down was claustrophobic, requiring Eldan to squeeze through narrow crevices barely large enough to fit his head and shoulders. After blindly forcing himself through the first choke-point, he folded and twisted so he could lead with his hands. Increasingly, he found himself in sandwiching clefts, with solid stone pressing against his back and stomach. He crept forward with his arms outstretched, pulling and pushing with his fingers and toes when he had no space to bend his arms and legs. He quickly became completely disoriented, unable to tell where he was in the stone cluster, or how far he had traveled. The eel seemed to be staying just ahead of him, lighting the way forward. He focused on the glowing lights like a lifeline, fighting the panic of being enclosed in an unfathomable weight of stone.
The path wound in every direction, at times lateral or even ascending, but the longest passages were veritable chimneys, vertical descents plunging ever deeper into the stone warren. Eldan became increasingly convinced that he had long since left the rocks on the lakebed behind, entering into a cave system beneath. He was not by nature afraid of small spaces but the constant confinement was starting to eat at his sanity. He had no idea how to find his way back out and, even if he wanted to try, no space to turn around. After clawing his way through an opening so small that he had to turn his head sideways and exhale completely to flatten his chest, he stopped, trembling as he tried to regain his composure.
Eldan lay on his stomach in relative spaciousness, with enough room to bend his elbows and put his face in his hands. He began giggling uncontrollably at the absurdity of his situation. He was following some species of giant, predatory eel into its lair, basing that decision solely on the idea that it was communicating with him. The more he thought about it the more preposterous it sounded, and the more silent giggles escaped his lips. Eldan saw the lights in the tunnel ahead growing brighter through his fingers, and laughed harder still at the thought that the eel was turning back to find out why he had stopped moving. He closed his eyes, deciding that he was not in a sufficient state of mind to stare into the eel’s gaping maw again.
The tunnel continued to grow brighter, the light visible even through Eldan’s eyelids. He dropped his hands and began slowly feeling his way through the narrow passage, waiting for the light to recede as the eel turned back. He felt something firm and smooth bump into his forehead and his eyes shot open, finding the eel staring, nose to nose again. Eldan started at the sight even though he was fully expecting the eel to be there, cracking the back of his head on the stone ceiling. He made a silent cry of frustration, dropping his head back onto his arms while the eel wriggled backward to give him space.
When he looked back up, the eel seemed to be staring at him with concern. Eldan huffed a single, mirthless laugh, unable to point to any objective reason for thinking the eel was worried about him. Its eyes were dull and unblinking, mouth hanging slack, exposing rows of strangely crystalline teeth leading toward its cottony throat. Processing what he was seeing with his logical mind, Eldan saw a mindless, alien creature. And yet, his instincts were insisting that the eel was projecting concern and sympathy.
Wondering if he was truly losing his mind, Eldan nodded toward the eel, attempting to convey readiness to proceed. The eel waved its head side to side and then mimicked his nod. Interpreting this to mean “not much further,” Eldan nodded again, placing his forearms on the floor in preparation for the crawl ahead. The eel folded back on itself, flowing in a thick ribbon until its tail flicked into view, gliding forward into the channel.
The path continued on much as before, and Eldan sank into the process of crawling, inching and squeezing through the endless stone. He focused his mental energy on solving each problem the passage presented in turn, letting his worries about what lay ahead and behind fall away. Squeezing through a pinch on his back, he craned his head to find his next move, realizing he would have to descend into a hole almost immediately. He folded his shoulders, compressing his upper body enough to carefully rotate onto his stomach. This done, he stretched out his arms and reached into the downward passage, finding only empty space past the lip. Extending further, he managed to get his elbow into the opening, waving his hand in the open water.
The water beneath him felt different, fresher, like an aquifer of cool water was feeding it somewhere below. Eldan licked his lips, realizing he was thirsty, and wondering if the water was safe to drink. He began working his hips though the stone pinch, gripping the lip of the opening to pull himself out. When he was free he scooted forward, looking into the space beneath.
The hole opened into another huge cavern, this one dense with stone formations. Delicate spires spiraled from floor to ceiling, and rock arches and waves flowed up from the floor, frozen in towering, graceful arcs. Threads of light raced across every surface, entangling in complex, ever-changing patterns, as though the stones were draped in liquid lace. The moving lights gave the illusion that the rock forms were elongating and contracting, or waving gently in the water.
The cavern’s floor was covered in a moss-like layer of green-hued crystalline growth. Towering stalks, each with branching, radial extensions, erupted from the mossy bumps here and there, creating the effect of an ancient forest. Eldan got the distinct impression that these crystalline forms were living organisms, though the ethereal, translucent material was like no plant he had ever seen. Lowering his arms into the opening with a deep breath, he slid over the edge and into the cavern.