Private Tales Return to Bhatairk

A private roleplay only for those invited by the first writer

Scabhair

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She’d seen plenty of magic in her lifetime. The art of the shamans first, of course, since her first partaking in the Rites. When they fought the centaurs in the west, they brought their own battle magics from the eaglehead, scorching the earth and setting the plains aflame.

The college was a whole another animal – prescribed and dogmatic, with nary a hair out of place, all of it enshrined in writing and process that few mages dared buckle.

Whatever Hath was doing… she’d not witnessed it yet. His veins stood out against silver skin, dark and stark as he wielded the Biter as if it were a feather. The ancient oaken pillar gave under his unyielding strength, and in the next moment both beam and orc went down in unison.

Scabhair hesitated under her own wounded burden, gaze flicking between her companion and the shaman raising his hands to finish the job he had started. Her jaw steeled as she pushed past her indecision.

Among the two, there was only one she could help.

She handed off the cripple to a wizened elder whose wiry arms barely held up the warrior. She was running towards Hath when the hill rumbled and shook beneath them again. Her heart jumped up into her throat as she saw the dirt open up where they’d pierced the palisade.

It seemed to happen all too slowly – the crack splintered forward, rushing through the square like a bolt of lightning confined to the earth.

Her lips were moving and she must’ve screamed for her throat to ache, but the Afiorn didn’t hear a word of it. The rest of the orcs scrambled towards the wall, where the ground held fast. Their gaping mouths and wide eyes were the last thing she saw before they tumbled into the dark.

The Undercity of Bhathairk swallowed them whole.
 
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Hath Charosh

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Hath saw her face in perfect clearly as the ground fell away. The image almost stayed frozen. He didn't hear the scream, he just saw the shock before everyone was swallowed into darkness.

In that instant Hath felt that this had to be the end. If the fire was coming from beneath the ground them they were going down to burn.

When he blinked his eyes open he thought that perhaps he was burning. The heat was oppressive. The pain that came first wasn't his skin being burned. It was each and every place he had struck rock on the way down.

It was dark down here. The outer regions of the undercity, far from where Neha had harboured her egg. The air was hot and dry, but there were no flames around them. Just the architecture that could never be mistaken for the work of orcs.

"Scy..."

Hath managed to get onto his knees and elbows, but even that left him shaking.
 
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Scabhair

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She would rather have burned to ash in the rivers of fire.

She would rather have frozen to death crossing the Spine.

She would rather have died to a swift spearpoint to the heart, or a sword to the neck, or an axe to the skull.

It wasn’t the fall that killed you. It wasn’t the heights. The burning pain in her broken ankle was an afterthought, shoved into the back of her mind and quashed underneath the black, looming fear.

Nothing around them but pitch black and a single beam of light filtering through the dust from far, far above. Nothing but wet dirt and dry heat and the drip drip drip of water leaking from its basin.

Scabhair was pressed against the damp stone at her back, arms wrapped around herself for what little safety and consolation the gesture offered.

She fucking hated caves.
 
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Hath Charosh

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That single shard of light was a blurred strip on Hath's vision. It refused to even stay still, seemingly swinging back and forth. It stopped its sweep, the blurred edges finally resolving into that sharp beam. The dust filtering through looked like gold dust. It did not taste like it on the lungs.

Hath pushed himself upright on both knees. His arms trembled from the exertion. The pain also became crystal fucking clear, pulsing white hot from nearly every corner of his body.

His left shoulder was dislocated. Ribs were at least bruised. He was bleeding from a dozen cuts, but his blood flowed most freely from above his cheek.

"Scabhair," he hissed again. When he saw her, he couldn't even get to his feet. He half crawled, half scrabbled across the ground over to her.

"Can you stand?" he asked. The reality of their situation had not yet hit home.
 
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Scabhair

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She struggled to swallow her tears past the lump in her throat as Hath called out to her again. Spirits, but they were both broken now, plunged into this hell under the earth.

Scabhair bared her teeth at the darkness, clenching her fists tight enough to cut open the skin of her palms.

“I—” her voice cracked like bone in her maw of a gathamhr. She inhaled, sharp and shallow, fighting her own tensed muscles to drag the hot air into her lungs.

“Don’t know,” she managed, withdrawing against the wall in the futile hope that it would swallow her up and put her out of her misery.

And then it did.

Her elbow hit a loose piece of stone that sank into the rock. A dull, grinding noise echoed tenfold throughout the cave and then her support gave out as the rock slab slid out of the way. Scabhair spat a slew of curses as her skull bounced against the hard ground.

“What is this place?!”
 
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Hath Charosh

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"I don't know," he said firmly.

The weight of the problem still hadn't landed for him. Their surroundings seemed less important than the state he had found Scabhair in.

A warm current of air washed over them, bringing that rotten scent that had lingered in the air above. They were inside a corridor, but deep beneath the ground.

Orcs did not build like this. Though they had been known - much to the chagrin of dwavenkind - to inhabit abandoned underground dwarven cities.

His fingers lightly trembled, the cost of that dark magic, as he reached for her. Hath clasped his hand around her shoulder tightly to try and anchor her.

"How are you hurt?"

Hath was wrong, but that felt like the most important question right now.
 
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Scabhair

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“I’m…” she chuckled, an empty sound that echoed behind her, into a corridor unseen. She rubbed her stinging eyes, glad for the darkness where it hid her tears and pain. In the light, she must’ve looked miserable.

In the end, Scabhair settled for the easier answer. “I broke my ankle.”

The admission was followed by a heavy sigh as she picked herself back up, leaning against the edge of the opening and steadfastly ignoring how the stone dug into her back. The dull pain of it was a welcome contrast to the pulsing, swelling heat in her foot.

“How did you fare?”

If she kept her eyes closed, she could almost convince herself they weren’t buried in the ancient bowels of a hill.

If she kept her eyes closed, her heart almost stopped trying to burst out of her breast.
 
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Hath Charosh

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Hath tilted his head towards his left shoulder by way of answer. It was still rolled forwards far more than the range of motion would usually allow. Hath didn't feel up to trying to pop it back into place just yet. He wouldn't be shooting his bow for a few days, but that seemed the least of their problems.

He glanced upwards. There were floors built into the ground above them. Perhaps that fragile masonry had saved them from a fatal fall. To his left biter had fallen on the sharp edge and had lodged itself in the ground. A few feet over and it would have taken his leg clean off.

Reaching forward, he pressed a palm to her cheek and then threaded his fingers through her matted hair. He pressed his forehead to hers, the grime and dust gritty between them. His breath was hot and heavy across her lips.

"We will get out of this," he growled. Right now, naively, he believed that too.
 
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Scabhair

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She clasped the back of his neck with an eager hand, uncaring for the moment that he would feel the mute sobs wracking her frame. They had seen the Rites together; each unfurled and reduced to nothing but earth, wind, and fire. A track of dry tears on her cheeks could not ever change that, nor take it away.

“We will,” she echoed, quiet but firm. “Help me up?”

Despite the destruction, the fall, the encroaching terror of the choking dark, the scholar in Scabhair couldn’t help but ache to explore unknown depths beneath Bhathairk. Curiosity warred with the host of negative emotions weighing down on the orc, and in true testament to her stubborn streak, this only emboldened her to rise in their spite.

“Neither of us are in a state to climb back up.” Under normal circumstances, maybe. She’d scaled the Spine often enough to become wise in the ways of the mountain clans. As it – they – stood, however… “The corridor is the only way forward.
 
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Hath Charosh

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Hath turned to look at the dark opening of the corridor. He was not claustrophobic, but the side was as foreboding as the open maw of a savanna jyuratodus defending its watering hole.

He looked up at the route back up. It had been lightly taxing just to draw her up with his good arm. He was not going to make that climb.

"The light will fade fast," he said.

Now he felt a flutter of fear. Scrabbling around corridors in absolute darkness and feeling for a way out was a prospect that sent a shiver up his spine.

With a sudden jerk and twist he used the wall to reset his shoulder.

Head tilted back, he did not restrain the cry of pain that became a feral growl.
 
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Scabhair

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Despite the half-light, Scabhair could make out the pain on Hath’s face clear as day. Her mouth twisted into a sad moue as she squeezed his hand more firmly. “Let’s make the best of it.”

She her first step into the narrow corridor with a deep breath, supporting half her weight on the wall and the rest on Hath’s good shoulder. Not for the first time, Scabhair wondered what life would be like if she had the eyes of a gathamhr. She’d witnessed Inodeirr hunting at night and the massed armies of Tsagaan Qhan, and would rather face the latter alone than the former.

She could outrun a steppe centaur.

“What is this place?” she wondered aloud as they limped deeper into the heart of ra Gharnamh Cuir. Scabhair couldn’t see as well as a Baaran lion, perhaps, but she could well feel the furrows and patterns under her fingers as she groped the wall like a student on his first night out on the streets of Elbion.

Confusion, aches, and racing heart aside, Scabhair knew orcish architecture, and it was not an aesthetic undertaken in stone nor underneath the earth. Her people lived under a free sky, always just a step away from the stars.

“It must be older than Bhathairk,” the scholar stirred past the fear, picking up in the train of thought as they picked their way through the dark. “And humans never lasted long enough out here to build something like—”

She blinked, hard, and swallowed the lump in her throat. Her voice escaped on a frail breath. “Stop.”

Her foot had found only empty air where stone ought to be.

“There’s… nothing there. The ground is gone.”
 
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Hath Charosh

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The darkness became absolute far more quickly than he had expected. At times he felt he caught sight of poorly defined shapes. It was impossible to say whether it was the last light catching something or simply his mind playing tricks with him.

Hath stopped. He could hear very little besides his breathing, but he heard the soft hiss of grains of rock tumbling over the edge ahead.

"It is underground. Elves do not build underground," he reasoned. It left one main possibility.

"Dwarves? Or something that came before them?"

After checking that she could stand, he dropped to his knees and reached out with his hand. He found the hard stone floor. It was made up of smooth flagstones, but covered in a layer of grit and dust. He found the ragged edge and reached over.

Hath felt his pulse race. The notion of reaching down with his arm into an unseen depth filled him with a cold fear. He tried to quell his imagination, given a blank canvas of what his eyes could see.

He reached nothing.

"It is not shallow," he grunted, standing back up and reaching for her.
 
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Scabhair

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“No,” Scabhair echoed the faint tone of his words, and tried very hard not to listen to the syllable itself reverberating into the abyss below.

“It is not shallow.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose and inhaled the stale underground air. It didn’t help. She exhaled, hating how thready the breath sounded as it left her lungs. She would not die like this.

Her journals weren’t published yet.

And just like that, the thought sparked another. Her eyes flew open, but she didn’t see the darkness at all – instead she used it as a canvas, recalling all the codices and tractates she’d had to read on Dwarvish architecture for her third-year exams. For once she was thankful that Professor Stroghi was so anal about details.

“Can you…” she furrowed her brow as she chased down an elusive fact, “is there something off to the sides? A ramp or stairs of some sort?”
 
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Hath Charosh

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"Lean on the wall. And keep talking," Hath replied.

He had nodded at her request, the gesture swallowed by shadows. Hath asked for her to keeping talking for two distinct reasons. Hath hadn't broken physical contact since they had set out. For his own benefit he wanted to hear that she was close as he went to find a ramp.

He also knew her well enough to notice the shift in her tone when Scabhair was thinking something through. For her benefit, talking would hopefully mean her musing on the possibilities and not sinking into despair again.

The simple act of getting up and down had the pain in his shoulder radiating outwards again. Hath tried to keep it from mind as he took slow steps to his left.

Each time he deliberately ran his boot along the edge of the floor. He kept his balance on his trailing leg as he followed the crack. Eventually he reached the far wall and success.

"Stairs."
 

Scabhair

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So kept talking she did – that, at the very least, was something she could assuredly do. Come hell or high water, bitter cold, arid heat, the breathless air of the Spine or the stale stink of the underground, Scabhair could always run her mouth.

“It would, of course, depend on the era we’re dealing with, although considering the fact that this has been hidden underneath Bhathairk for several generations of the Circle, I would wager this is something that belongs to the dwarves of old – Age of Wonders, perhaps? I cannot say for certain until we see...” she laughed bitterly, “until we learn the finer details of the architecture here. If time has been too unkind we might never discern enough to tell exactly, but—”

“Stairs.”

Hath’s steady voice was a balm on her frayed nerves. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to breathe again now her ribs weren’t being crushed under the weight of certain doom.

“Okay.”

If Hath, who was both wider, taller, and heavier than herself, could pass along the ledge, than so should she. Thus it followed from simple logic, but no amount of academy or degrees in Arethil could keep the irrational terror from stirring in her gut.

Scabhair bared her fangs at the darkness in spite and took her first step forward. If she could master her fear enough to scale those endless peaks at the edge of the world, then she would do the same in these eviscerated bowels of the earth.

She inched along the ledge, feeling out every stone as if it could be her last. The murals dug into her back where she pressed herself flush against the wall. So much so that she was sure they could transcribe the patterns off her skin once she made it to the other side.

A small eternity later, she crossed the chasm and grasped Hath with a desperation she might’ve been ashamed of under any other circumstances. Here, she was endlessly thankful for the comfort of his solid body and his familiar smell, unmistakable even under the musty dirt and ash.

“Let’s keep moving,” she said, her tone both hard and brittle all at once. Too long, too still, and she might crumble again with the reminder of the all-encompassing darkness.
 
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Hath Charosh

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He could feel the tension in her body from just a gentle grip on her shoulders. It wasn't the kind of tension that came before the fight. The body of a good fighter - and Scabhair was that - didn't hold rigid. There was power contained, but ready to explode in motion.

Hath could feel it in himself. He knew what it was to contain such raw feelings. That was how the demon had started. At the edge of his psyche, flaring to life in fear and anger. Back before its personality had formed. This was unsettling for him, a reminder of teetering on the edge of control. It was worse for her.

He threaded his fingers into her hair. It wasn't gentle. A human would have thought they were being grabbed as part of an attack. Hath pressed his forehead firmly to hers.

"We keep on," he agreed.

He turned and set one hand against the wall as a guide. The other trailed him, brushing against her from time to time to reassure him of the distance between them. He was no so capable of rambling on to fill the silence. But he tried.

"I have never known darkness like this," he said. A pause. "That probably does not help. Shall I tell you how I was nearly consumed by a demon?"
 
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Scabhair

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Her smile was paper-thin, barely tugging and holding her lips for more than a few moments, but it was the thought that warmed her heart more than the act itself. Hath was a good, reliable man in many things, and she would gladly rely on him both in war and peace.

But for the comfort of a soul in distress, he had little talent.

“Perhaps when we’re out of this mess,” she replied, keeping her voice small to avoid the creeping echo.

They had begun moving again from their perch at the edge of the abyss, advancing one measured, careful step at a time further into the tunnels hewn out of the rock centuries before their time.

Scabhair did her best to fill the encroaching silence with fragments of lectures and texts that she’d read on the dwarves of old. It wasn’t much more than voicing whatever thoughts sped through her mind, all told, and it kept her too busy to worry about the weight of the dirt above them. And if she stumbled across any useful facts in the process, then all the better.

It was a good thing, though, that she had kept her voice low.

If she hadn’t, then perhaps they would not have heard the distant rumbling in time.
 
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Hath Charosh

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Hath didn't listen too carefully to Scabhair's recital. He caught snippets about the dwarven cities that even the dwarven records had lost. Just names of places that had once been. Orcish stories rarely focused on places, they were of people and thir greatest deeds.

The sound of her voice stopped his senses from compensating for the darkness. The feel of smooth stone under his palm wasn't enough. His eyes wanted to form shapes out of the unending black. He couldn't form anything pleasant or even benign from that dark canvas.

It was hard to judge time and distance. He knew they were travelling forwards, which was not to say they were making progress. He could barely feel any movement in the air. They must have passed beneath the wall by now, but he was aware of the fact that they probably weren't going as far as it felt.

He stopped quite abruptly as he heard, felt the rumble. His hand patted the wall before he found her forearm and wrapped his fingers about it.

"Is that the ground shaking?"
 
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Scabhair

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So it was.

Scabhair, who was not so far up her own ass as some Elbion scholars, eschewed stating the obvious. Out of instinct she dropped her voice to a whisper, not knowing whether they were facing a natural phenomenon or something more… organic in origin.

“Shall we keep going forward? Ascertain what this might be?”

Truthfully, she couldn’t say which prospect instilled greater dread.

But then if she’d stopped and gone back every time life presented her with a fearsome challenge, she would never have set foot out of her first camp on the steppes. Nor ridden a gathamhr, shot a bow, or taken herself on the long journey into the far west to learn more about the world in all the ways her tribe couldn’t – or wouldn’t.

Their sharp orc senses would serve them where their sight was useless. And like their kin had done from the age of Uroghosh, they would bring their flame into the furthest reaches of the dark and witness what other peoples lacked the courage to.
 
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Hath Charosh

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"Back that way is a city in flames," Hath replied. He wasn't even thinking of fire, he was thinking of the glowing rivers of molten rock. The heat that could have seared the skin from his flesh from paces away.

It wasn't frightening in the same way as the unknown, but it was rather certain in its deadly nature. A cliff edge was not frightening when it was far away, you simply did not set out to walk off of it.

"I think of no way but forward," he replied, sinking to his knees. He placed the palm of his hand to the stone. The vibrations travelled better here through the hard rock than soft ground above. It still taught him very little.

As a savanna orc he knew what would kill them first if they found no way out. He knew that walking he could go without water almost five days, if jogging across the dry plains for hours on end just three. Scabhair probably wouldn't be as adapted for going so long. That thought conjured a future worse than fire or monsters in the dark.
 
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Scabhair

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Forward it was.

Scabhair drew the stale air deep into her lungs and gave Hath’s strong hand a squeeze. They would see this through. The both of them had seen harsher places on this earth. An abandoned city under Bhathairk would not be the end of them.

Brushing past him, the half-orc stopped for a moment to press her forehead against his. A wordless warning to be careful of each step and sound going forward. Underneath all their learning and travels, they were hunters at heart.

When they moved next, they didn’t make a single sound.

She wished now she’d taken her bow off Ino’s saddle before taking off into the dying city. Then again, it would’ve most likely splintered during the fall. No use lamenting the paths she hadn’t taken. The only road she had to consider now was the one ahead.

Even if it shook under her feet with rhythmic tremors.

They were either heading into the lair of a sibling to the beast that had torn apart the orcish stronghold, or the whole stretch of dirt and rock above them was about to collapse and bury them forever.

Either way, it wouldn’t be long until they found out.
 
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Hath Charosh

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This was not how he had wanted their reunion to go, he told himself again. The press of her skin to his, the grip of her hand let him ignore everything else for a moment. Not that there was anything but that noise. The lack of light made him hypersensitive to her touch, the unique scent of her skin. Instead of fighting to survive he had intended to steal her from her duties until they were aching and bruised and satisfied.

His mind conjured the tunnel ahead of them narrowing. Narrowing until they became stuck, grasping ahead to try and reach the light until they squeezed the last of the air out of his own lungs. Hath had to steel himself against such tricks of the mind. He was usually too pragmatic for such things.

The sound grew, but slowly Hath realised there was more. The path seemed, as best he could tell, to be unerringly straight. Hath realised the spot he saw on his vision was not made up. It slowly resolved into a shape a dull rectangle. Then it took on colour, a faint glow of green.

"You see that?" he asked, not quite able to believe his own eyes. The sound was becoming more rhythmic, consistent. Something breathing or not something alive at all.
 
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Scabhair

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How could she not?

After however many minutes – or hours – they had spent stumbling through the dark, any semblance of light, however faint and inconstant, was like a guiding star on a foreign firmament.

Scabhair squeezed his forearm in a gesture of agreement and a bid for silence all at once.

As if the green hue wasn’t enough to give it away, they were far too deep underground for it to be of celestial origin. That didn’t exclude the possibility of it being natural. She just wasn’t particularly enthusiastic to find out what sort of creature made its home in the bowels of the earth.

Her fears were allayed for once as they progressed further down the corridor. The longer she observed the pulsing of the light, the more its constant rhythm struck her as mechanical. No flame flickered so evenly, nor did no living being breathe so steadily.

The other cause for her distraction was what the faint glow had revealed – the murals and patterns on the walls that no eye had witnessed in centuries. Scabhair was learned beyond the measure of many scholars even, and she recognised none of symbols running the length of the discoloured frieze.

By the spirits though, she wanted to.

Tearing her gaze away for the more pressing concerns ahead, Scabhair followed Hath until they made it to the lip of the low corridor. There the view expanded in every dimension, opening into a chamber so vast she could hardly comprehend what she was seeing.

An underwater lake shimmered before them, its smooth surface undisturbed save for the faint ripples that travelled its length with every tremor that shook the great cavern. Small lanterns dotted the walls, most of them underwater, their green light illuminating the largest murals yet – and towering statues besides, some of them still standing, others broken down and jutting like bleached bones out of the black.

And at the other end of the chamber, slicing through the water again and again with eternal regularity; a pendulum.
 
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Despite her urging for silence Hath very nearly repeated his previous question. His gaze didn't trace the writing. It could have been the common trade language and he wouldn't have been able to read a word. His eyes went straight for the motion.

A subtle shift in his posture had his weight a few inches closer to the ground. His heart was racing and despite the exhaustion he already felt, the surge of fear had him tapping that dark power the demon had left behind. Instinct was what had seen him through the worst moments of his life and he turned to it now.

When nothing else moved in the shadows it took a few seconds to draw himself back from the animal. To layer himself back over the core of flight or fight instincts.

He stood slightly taller, his breathing slowed a fraction. The tension bled out of his muscles and felt like fire in his veins.

"How can lights still be here," he hissed, "and what is that?" he asked, pointing his axe towards the swinging pendulum. To see something moving with metronomic precision with no breeze or external influence confused him. Hath dragged himself from instinct towards reason and Scabhair was the scholar here.
 
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Scabhair

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The only answer she could offer for his first question was a shake of her head. If her suspicions were right – more than suspicions, really, given what she could see of the murals and inscriptions – then this place was second only to Uroghosh in age.

And that… even Scabhair struggled to comprehend the immense number of years between then and now.

“I don’t know,” she murmured, her eyes leaving the distant pendulum for the nearest lamp. She took a slow step forward, favouring her good leg still, careful not to slip and break herself further on the wet stone.

“It must be some sort of sorcery, but…” the orc trailed off, a deep furrow forming in her brow. She was neither a shaman nor a college-educated mage, but she’d learned the basic precepts of magic during her time in Elbion nonetheless. They placed much emphasis on it, after all.

“Magic has an end.” She turned her dark brow to Hath, mouth curled down in frustration. “Unless someone has been… coming here? Reinforcing the spells?”

But it didn’t sound right even as the words left her mouth. Everything had been ensconced in darkness up to here; the floors and ceilings fallen to disrepair. Even the air they breathed was thick with dust and earth, undisturbed until they had stumbled along. They were both of them hunters at their core, and could tell through instinct alone that no other living soul had set foot here in centuries.

Yet the persistent green light was not the strangest thing in the room.

“A machinamentum,” Scy said softly, a sense of awe permeating her words. She’d seen a few of them back at the college, in the labs of the engineers and the alchemists, but they’d all been husks – dead, immobile, quiet.

“It is… alive, but it does not breathe, and no blood runs through its body,” the scholar struggled to explain what she could hardly understand, swiftly dredging up old theory to apply to this unprecedented encounter. “They built them after Uroghosh was long gone. We don’t really know how, or why. But this one…” her breath hitched, and for the first time since they’d landed underground, Scabhair seemed like herself.

“We could learn.”
 
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