Chapter 159: Down Within
There were radical implications if the dwarves were really allied with the Alacryans, but regardless of my hunch, I needed to make sure my suspicions weren’t just me being over skeptical.
It took me another hour or so to locate one of the hidden entrances to the dwarves’ underground kingdom, but even that was only possible with the help of Realmheart.
<em>‘Your breathing is strained,’</em> Sylvie noted from inside my cloak as I carefully ran my fingers down the faint crease, camouflaged to look like an ordinary crack along the steep cliff.
<em>It’s fine. I just used Realmheart for too long, that’s all,</em> I replied as I stared down at my arms. Without the golden runes etched into me and my vision returning to normal, I realized how pale my body had become—it wasn’t the sort of creamy pale that girls wished for but the sickly pale that made you worry for your wellbeing.
<em>‘I feel like I shouldn’t need to remind you, but do know that there is a concept called moderation that works wonders on both mind and body?’</em>
Ignoring my bond’s nagging, I tried pushing at the concealed entrance once more. Despite the added mana to strengthen my body, the earthen door refused to move.
There should definitely be some sort of way to open it. I’m missing something. I continued sliding my hands, which were surrounded in earth attribute mana, across the length of the hidden door.
<em>‘Maybe you need to be a dwarf to be allowed to enter,’</em> Sylvie mused.
<em>No. I highly doubt that there is a specific mana signature that only dwarves could have besides deviants, and if that were the case, more than eighty percent of their population wouldn’t be able to get in through their own doors. No, there has to be a different—I think I got it!</em>
I immediately kneeled, sending Sylvie tumbling out of my cloak with my sudden movement.
<em>You may not need to be a dwarf but a dwarf had definitely built this, so I should act as if I were one.</em> I ran my hands through the rocky wall once more, pushing aside the shrub that covered much of the bottom-half of the hidden door.
<em>‘Ah, the height!’</em> she exclaimed, her excited voice ringing in my head as she climbed atop my shoulder.
After several minutes of trying to find the handle, button, lever—anything—to open the lock mechanism, I finally found it. At about four feet from the ground, near the ridge of the door, my left hand sunk into the cliff. At first, it felt like I had accidentally touched some sort of sap or glue-like substance, but when I highered the output of mana into my hand, the viscosity of the wall changed. As I played around with the unique mechanism of this door, I realized that it wasn’t about how much earth attribute mana you put into your hand, but the precise pattern of mana levels you invoked as you inserted your hand deeper into the hidden lock.
If the mana output levels could be measured from a value of one to ten, then I needed to find the right combination between those numbers to successfully unlock this entrance.
Every time I guessed the output level wrong and attempted to push my hand through deeper into the lock hole, the earth surrounding my hand turned more viscous, pushing my hand out of the lock.
“Damn it,” I cursed under my breath after the twentieth failed attempt at unlocking the door. Half tempted to blow open the door, I took a deep breath and released Realmheart once more.
Immediately, a searing pain flooded out of my core and into body and limbs. I buckled and fell to my knees into a series of intense coughs. I didn’t just vomit food and bile this time but blood as well.
A wave of dissatisfaction and concern washed out of Sylvie.
<em>I </em>swear,<em> if you say something about moderation again…</em>
<em>‘Let’s just get this mission over with. You can get some rest then,’</em> she replied.
With a feeble nod, I put weight on my legs to prop myself back up only to end up flat on my back. With the little mana I had spent on maintaining Realmheart, I rescinded the mana I’d coalesced into my legs to save for unlocking the entrance.
I could feel the emotions of my bond once again as she peered down at me. Staying silent, Sylvie helped me into a sitting position by pushing me back up with her head.
Taking breaths felt like I was swallowing needles, but I was thankful that I could even activate Realmheart again. Wasting no time, I focused on the area where the keyhole was, my hand barely reaching it with the help of Sylvie. Using the last bit of mana that I’d saved, I willed earth attribute mana into my hand.
Immediately, I could see the fluctuations of mana particles gathering around the concealed keyhole. When I willed the correct amount of mana into my hand, the particles lit up and dispersed, allowing my hand to go further into the hole without fear that I’d have to start over.
<em>I bet you dragons never thought of using Realmheart for things like this,</em> I smirked as my hand submerged into the wall, now up to my forearm.
<em>‘Things like unlocking a door? No, that’d be beneath us,’</em> my bond grunted.
<em>Situations call for adaptation, my furry little dragon,</em> I retorted, tugging on the handle buried deep within the lock mechanism of the concealed door. With a satisfying click, the earthen wall rumbled before sliding open.
I turned back and shot my bond, who was still keeping my broken body up, a proud wink.
<em>‘I get embarrassed at the thought of ever referring you as “papa”.’</em> Even in her furry little fox form, there was a palpable sense of mockery as she rolled her eyes.
<em>Hey, you were the one that hatched for me.</em> Withdrawing Realmheart, I wiped the trail of blood that ran down my chin from the corner of my mouth and reallocated my miniscule mana into my legs once more.
Working with a single-digit percentage of my mana barely allowed me the luxury of being able to use my mangled legs, and even then standing was an arduous task.
Using the wall as a support, I got up and spared no time heading down the narrow corridor. The passageway that was about five feet wide and had a ceiling that scraped the top of my head even when hunched was more like a crude tunnel than an actual hallway. Fortunately, there were candles casting a dim light inside little cubby holes dug into either side of the walls. Without the need for mana aside from strengthening my legs, I was able to take advantage of this brief down time to use Mana Rotation and replenish my empty core.
I could feel the heat from the candles, but after venturing through the harsh sandy winds I wholeheartedly welcomed it. I stuck to the left side of the hallway, partly to be somewhat hidden and also because I desperately needed to lean against the jagged wall for support while walking down the small slope. Meanwhile, Sylvie trotted carefully a few steps ahead, checking and testing anything remotely suspicious that could be a hidden trap.
<em>‘Is this really a good idea? You’re in no state for battle if, by chance, we encounter an enemy. I’m limited to what I can do in this form and even if we see that the dwarves are allied with the Alacryans, what can we do?’</em> my bond bombarded as we slowly made our way down hallway.
<em>It’s not a good idea, but we need to do this,</em> I replied seriously. <em>You’re right; I can’t fight, and there’s not </em>much place<em> to hide in case we do run into someone, but we can’t waste time recovering. If I’m right, even if I can’t gather proof, I know at least Virion and Aldir will listen to me.</em>
<em>‘Fine, but our arrangement still stands. The moment we run into trouble, I’m breaking these walls and we’re getting out of here.’</em>
<em>Sure,</em> I complied as we continued making our way down the dimly lit hallway until something luminescent—that wasn’t a candle—appeared in the distance. Exchanging a glance with each other, my bond and I made our way toward the light.
The tunnel curved slightly the closer we got to the still light and my ears were able to pick up distant echoes of sounds. The sounds grew louder as the two of us continued down the tunnel but there were too many things going on at once for me to pick apart specific sounds. There were conversation and echoes, multiple sharp footfalls, as well as the clanging of metal. Finally, after about another few minutes of steady staggering, the exit of the tunnel laid just ahead.
With my back against the wall, I sidestepped toward the exit, careful not to accidentally kick any pebbles or create some other noise that might alarm a guard that might be around the corner. Sensing no signs of activity just outside the tunnel, Sylvie and I shuffled quickly to the edge of the exit where a curtain of shadow hid us from any unsuspecting eyes.
We gazed blankly at the magnitude of what we had stumbled onto. The hallway opened up into an enormous cavern with a domed ceiling so without imperfection that, for a second, I doubted that we were still underground. Rather than candles, massive torches lined the walls to reveal just how large the cavern actually was and who were within.
I let loose a string of curses in my head as I peered down. In the center of the cavern floor—roughly two stories down—was a massive teleportation gate surrounded by dwarves and steadily trickling out from the shimmering gate were Alacryan troops.
Before I was able to get a closer look at what was going on, the sound of footsteps approaching the tunnel we had come through made me whirl back. The massive cavern seemed like a beehive, with dozens of other tunnels dotted uniformly along the wall. Dozens of staircases carved of stone lined the walls, each one of them leading to a different tunnel, and approaching the tunnel that Sylvie and I had come through was a platoon of Alacryan soldiers.
<em>‘I’m getting us out of here,’</em> my bond stated, her body already beginning to glow.
<em>Not yet!</em> Focusing on one of the entrances to a tunnel just a few yards away, I managed to will a few rocks to dislodge. I immediately heard the flurry of movement as the platoon whirled around, weapons and armor clanking.
Using the opportunity, I quickly picked up my bond and held her tightly against my chest. Flattened myself against the corner of the entrance and wall as much as possible, I mustered more of the mana I had gathered on our way here and willed a curtain of rock from the wall to surround us.
“Just a loose rock. Let’s go,” the soldier leading the platoon grunted.
<em>Hold your breath,</em> I ordered Sylvie as I activated Mirage Walk. Coalescing the atmospheric mana around us to hide our presence was something that I’d never had the need to use since coming back to Dicathen, but in this situation where enemy mages would be marching just inches away from us, I didn’t want to take any chances.
Inside a coffin of earth, I was surrounded by complete darkness. I could hear the synchronized marching of the soldiers as they went past us, their deliberate footfalls echoing against the tunnel walls. They were so close that I could hear the hushed whispers of the soldiers.
“When do you think we’ll go back home?” a voice murmured.
“Why? Miss your family already?” a husky voice mocked. “Just focus on racking some achievements through this war. Your blood will be thankful if you can finally afford to move them out of that little hut you call a home.”
“Great Virtra, both of you hush,” a gruff voice hissed. “Our whole team is going to be on night watch if you two keep it up.”
I couldn’t help but become absorbed in their conversations. Their way of talking was rather similar to ours but certain terms, like ‘blood’ and ‘Great Vritra’, I could only guess from their context. This got me thinking. How can two different continents that had almost no contact with each other be so eerily similar in their language?
<em>‘Grandfather told me that it was is of the asura’s intervention,’</em> my bond chimed in, her voice tense even in my head. ‘Asuras often sent a representative to secretly help advance Alacrya and Dicathen when needed. He explained how they would take the form of a lesser being, albeit exceptionally smart, and help them progress through the centuries.’
Sort of like how you asuras granted us the artifacts way back then? I asked.
<em>‘Yup. Except that, apparently, we had been doing long before then. The artifacts were supposedly a rather drastic change that the asuras chose to do to keep the lessers from going extinct.’</em>
<em>I see</em>, I pondered. It was a scary thought to think that perhaps the geniuses of my old world were actually deities sent from above to help us survive and progress.
As minutes slowly trickled by, the soldiers’ conversations did little to alleviate the discomfort of our situation. Without even cracks in the conjured coffin to provide breathable air, it became almost unbearably stifling and hot. I tried to focus solely on keeping up Mirage Walk to hide us from anyone with a keen sense when a loud thump shook the enclosed crevice we were in.
“What are you doing?” another soldier whispered impatiently.
The earthen crevice shook once more as the same soldier hit the wall I had conjured once again.
<em>‘I’m ready to fight. Just stay behind me,’</em> my bond informed, her voice lowering to a fierce growl in my mind.
<em>Just hold still,</em> I snapped, trying to keep my heart from bursting out of my ribcage.
“This end of the entrance was different from the other side,” the soldier replied hesitantly to his comrade. “And it sounded a bit hollow when I hit it.”
There was a brief pause where I was almost afraid that they’d investigate further, but to my surprise his comrade just let out a scoff.
“Merciful Vritra. I know you’re green but don’t hold the others back just because you see something weird. We’re in a different continent.”
I almost let out an audible sigh of relief as the sound of footsteps resumed, slowly subsiding as they made their way up the tunnel we had just come down from.
After making sure the soldiers had all passed by and no one else was coming, I opened a tiny hole to survey our surroundings. Only after another few minutes did I revoke my spell.
<em>‘We got what we came here for. Now let’s go back to tell Virion so you can actually get some rest to heal your wounds,’</em> Sylvie pleaded.
Yeah, let’s go, I agreed. Even with Sylvie’s unique healing techniques using aether, my legs were on the verge of collapsing and the only brief rest I had gotten was when I passed out on her back while coming here.
Already contemplating the best way to tell this critical news to Virion and Aldir and the precautions I would need to take just in case things went south and I needed to fight against the two dwarven lances, I merely took a glance back at the domed ceiling cavern when the Alacryan soldiers that were present suddenly all kneeled, facing the transportation gate.
After confronting two retainers and even defeating one, I thought that I’d be prepared to face a scythe. Even under the suspicion that the dwarves were betraying Dicathen, I was confident in being able to win this war. But as a figure clad in obsidian stepped out of that gate, I couldn’t help but feel shaken. Being here, barely standing on my own two feet, I felt like a mere flicker against the wind. I felt despair.