Spoiler Sunday: The Sea Caves

As anyone who has read Shards knows, it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. (Okay, a huge cliffhanger. Two of them. Sorry about that.)

Now, it’s going to be a little while yet until The War of the Ravels will be available, so in the interest of preventing undue stress, I’ve decided to post the resolutions to the cliffhangers here — or at least, part of the resolutions. These are first drafts, so they are subject to change, but they are definitely the direction the story is going in part two. Unless I change my mind.

Obviously, major spoilers lie ahead. Proceed with caution!

This week, Bernard’s fate post-cable-fall is revealed; next week, it will be Mercy’s turn.

Bernard groaned softly as consciousness returned to him, slowly, grudgingly, from somewhere far away. He coughed, spitting up water from deep in his chest; lukewarm liquid dribbled from the side of his mouth like thin blood. He lay there a few minutes longer, and coughed once or twice more; then, with a jerk, he flipped onto his side and vomited up several gouts of seawater. It trickled away along the rough, tilted floor.

Shivering, he rolled onto his back. The atmosphere felt close and clammy, and had the rank, stale smell of a shore where the water had retreated and left behind clumps of grey, drying seaweed riddled with dead fish. For a moment he thought he might have washed up on some nighttime beach, but the darkness was too complete, the air too still, the waves too silent. Remembering the last thing that had happened before he had blacked out, he decided that he must be in a sea cave. Somehow the current that had seized him and sucked him under had deposited him here. He felt something chafing around his wrist, realized it was the leather strap that they’d used to hang him from the cable. It had come loose from his left hand. He fumbled with the remaining knot until he got it off, then cast the waterlogged hunk of metal-studded hide away. He never wanted to look at it again.

How had he gotten here? He should have drowned. Maybe he had drowned, and just didn’t know it yet; or maybe Brannoc had taken over, and managed to swim his way to here, wherever here was. That seemed more likely than this being the afterlife, although, when he cast about inside himself for a trace of Brannoc’s presence, he didn’t feel it. Perhaps Brannoc had spent all his remaining energy getting to the putative safety of this cave, or he had taken over Bernard’s drowning body just after he had lost consciousness and had expired. How horrifying would that be, waking up to find you were deep underwater and out of air? He could imagine Brannoc thrashing around, looking for an air pocket. How long would he have had? Twenty or thirty seconds? As far as Bernard knew his alternate personality didn’t come with its own supply of oxygen, so it would hardly have been like hitting a reset button. He wondered if Brannoc if he was carrying inside himself the seed of Brannoc’s dead soul like a tiny, insubstantial corpse. He didn’t much like that idea.

His eyes had begun to adjust, and he realized there was some faint illumination here, like a night when thick clouds hid the moon. Bernard couldn’t tell exactly where it was coming from; it was enough for him to barely make out the outlines of the cave, a long tunnel receding into darkness. He also identified a pool of black water in the floor nearby. This must be how he had entered. Running his fingers along the edge, he felt the unmistakeable texture of crumbling bricks. A thin, gritty paste of rotting mortar attached itself to his fingers and he shook them in the water to get it off. He didn’t like the feel of it on his skin, as if thousands of tiny sharp mouths were gnawing at him.

Backing away from the water, he carefully stood and looked around. The glow was coming from the walls themselves, he thought, not generated by the awfully-convenient glowing lichen of myth and legend, but from an endlessly repeating series of runic squiggles that seemed to shoot through the entire cavern. He tottered over to the nearest wall for a closer look. It wasn’t his imagination; the walls were covered with what appeared to be scrawled writing. Except it wasn’t etched or scratched into the stone; it just sort of floated there, almost as if the walls had been shellacked, and the clear coating laced with luminous threads as it was laid down. This was so obviously an enchantment, even he could recognize it. Its glow lacked consistency, though; it would flicker and fade, then strengthen again, like a fluorescent light on its way out. He wondered what that meant, if the spell was fading or if it was supposed to do that according to some kind of cycle. He didn’t really want to be close to the water, but he didn’t want to be close to the magic walls, either. He backed away from both, then settled to the floor to think for a minute.

So. He was in a cave, most likely in the cliffs opposite Abacar. The fact that he could breathe—even though the air was thick and moist and stale—argued for some sort of oxygen exchange with the world above; but the sea water wasn’t rushing up out of that pool to fill the space, which implied that the cave was sealed, with no way out. Yet obviously intelligent beings had been here before, as evidenced by the brickwork around the pool and the ominous scribbles all over the walls. They might have come and gone through the water; they might have closed an airlock behind them. Or maybe they did like Mercy with the Illata, and opened a door to somewhere else.

He eyed the pool in the dimness. It just sat there, smooth and placid, but he didn’t like it. The current had been sucking him down. How had he ended up here? He didn’t think Brannoc had saved him this time. So what had reached down into the depths, plucked him out of the flow, and deposited him here? And why?

Had it picked up any of the others?

He had no idea if Nebandalex or Cynidece had survived the fall. He knew the other two had not, and the rest of the cable’s burden had consisted of the dead. Surely they hadn’t all been pulled into the current and delivered here. If they had been, where were they? He was, he could see, quite alone, and he was not of a mind to shout a hello to see if any of them called back to him. Instead, he slowly got to his feet, feeling sore and unsteady and short of breath. His soaked leathers creaked and tugged uncomfortably, trying keep him from stretching his limbs. He would have to be sure not to hold one position too long, so that they wouldn’t dry in a way that would restrict his motion; the last time he’d found himself trapped in a cave, he’d needed all the freedom of movement he had. For all the good it had done him. Or rather, done Brannoc.

He picked his way carefully along the tunnel. At least it sloped upwards, which made him feel a little better. If it had gone the other way, such that he was moving deeper below sea level, he would probably have curled up into a ball. The squiggles in the walls were omnipresent, casting their dim luminance, the entire endless screed glowing and fading in unison. The flickering might be erratic, but it was consistent. The runes operated as a unit, whatever they were doing.

The diameter of the passageway seemed to be increasing as he moved away from the pool. The glowing scrawl didn’t extend to the floor, for some reason, and he was staying in the middle of the tunnel, so the gloom was deepening where he walked; and when he emerged into a large chamber and almost immediately tripped and stumbled over something, it took him a moment to realize that it was an old, moist, dismembered skeleton, spread across the floor as if someone had scattered the bones like birdseed. After a momentary hesitation, he located the femur, and picked it up. The bone was ice-cold and slippery, but still hard. He could use it as a club, if he had to. Not that it seemed like there was anyone here to hit with it, but one never knew. Clutching it seemed to numb his hand a little, as if he were holding a handful of ice. It dawned on him then just how cold it was in here; as if he hadn’t realized it until then, he suddenly started to shiver, his body trembling from head to toe. With an effort he released his grip on the bone and cast it aside; the shivering stopped immediately. Thrusting his hand into his armpit—which, being sodden and leather-clad, did nothing to warm it—he gave the skeleton a baleful glare, then carefully picked his way through the field of bones without touching any more of them.

And more there were. So many more. It seemed like an entire graveyard had lurched over and vomited its contents into this stone pit. He stood at the edge of the circular chamber and stared, appalled, at the riot of bones that littered the floor, gleaming pallid white in the gloom. The roof arched overhead, supported by a series of masonry ribs that met at a ring in the center, at the highest point of the dome. The ring circumscribed a region of especially dense squiggles, packed so tightly that their glow seemed brighter than the walls, even though it faded and strengthened in time with all the rest. Unlike the walls, he could not tell if there was rock behind that set of runes or not. Perhaps he had found the plug; not that he had any idea how to reach it, hundreds of feet overhead. It was like that dungeon cell all over again, on a much grander scale. He imagined the owners of these skeletons, when they had flesh on them, milling around beneath that ring, waiting and hoping for it to open, only to fall one by one, die and decay and become the field of bones that stretched out before him. What a way to go.

Once his eyes adjusted further, he realized that there were seven other openings in the round chamber, equally spaced, as if it were the hub of a set of spokes, or the body of a tentacled sea creature. Did they all lead down to pools like the one he had emerged from? He suspected so. Perhaps the others had been drawn up into one of those. If they were the equivalent of tentacles dangling in the water, they would probably grab whatever came close enough, right? It was as good a theory as any. Staying close to the wall to avoid kicking or stepping on any of the bones, he moved counterclockwise toward the nearest one. It wasn’t long before he began to feel the glow of the sigils prickling on his skin. He hoped he wasn’t being exposed to weird fantasy radiation that would build up in his body and melt him or something. The effect of touching the bones had been worse and more immediate, though, so he tolerated the thrumming of the runes for now. Nothing here seemed beneficial.

As he approached the next opening, he began to hear faint scuffing sounds emanating from somewhere. He stopped moving at once, but the sounds continued. He didn’t think they were coming from his target archway, but it was impossible to tell in this vast echo chamber. Certainly there was nowhere good to hide. He darted to the nearest supporting rib and squeezed into the corner where it met the wall without actually touching the scribed runes. The masonry, at least, felt like normal, albeit decaying, brickwork. Much of the mortar had already flaked away and, remembering the odd feeling of the cement that encircled the pool where he had awakened, he was able to avoid getting any of it on his skin.
At length, he noticed movement partway around the chamber: A pale figure emerged from one of the openings, dragging something behind it. The dragging was the source of the sound he had heard. He squinted through the gloom, trying to make out what this apparition might be. Ghost? Ghoul? Goblin? After a moment, he realized it was Cynidece; he could tell by the jet-black hair, the ropy muscles, delineated by shadows even in this dimness. She was dragging another denizen of the cable along behind her, using the leather strap as a handle for pulling, though she had shed her own bonds. Even from here, in the dimness, he could see dark rings of bruises around her wrists. Bernard took a step away from the wall and hissed, “Don’t touch the bones!” She froze as if expecting a blow, let go of the strap, and looked around wildly. “Over here!” He waved his arms. “It’s Bernard!”

Her posture sagged for a moment in what he took to be relief, and then she beckoned him over. He hurried along the perimeter, moving less carefully, kicking a few bones out of the way. Each impact made the offending foot go briefly numb, causing him to stumble, and he slowed down after that. He didn’t want to fall down and sprawl across these fossils; he had a feeling that if he did, he might not get up again.

By the time he reached her, she had scuffed a little ways back into the tunnel from which she had emerged, hugging herself as if to keep warm. “It’s so cold in here,” she whispered as he joined her. Nebandalex lay on the floor at her feet, pallid and still, but breathing.

“Yes. Don’t touch the bones. Did you wake up near a pool of water?”

“I did. Something pulled me under. A current I couldn’t swim against. I thought I would drown. Instead …” She trailed off, looked down the tunnel, which ran off into a sigil-lit gloom. As far as Bernard could tell, it was identical to the one he had been in. “What is this place?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Nowhere good.” He crouched and clumsily felt Nebandalex’s neck, looking for a pulse. It seemed like the thing to do. He felt nothing, but he was probably doing it wrong; his fingers were chill and insensitive, and the elf’s chest was rising and falling in a shallow rhythm, so obviously his heart must still be beating. Assuming elves had those.

A sudden clatter rattled out of the rotunda chamber; Cynidece immediately joined him down near the floor, making herself less visible. Movement from one of the other tunnel openings drew his attention; a shape emerged, its steps awkward and shambling. What looked like a few loops of viscera, glistening in the dim, fluctuating light, swayed from its abdomen as it shuffled out into the ossuary, heedless of the bones it kicked aside like so many dead leaves. Beside him, he heard Cynidece’s sharp intake of breath. “Poddock,” she whispered.

“Poddock? But he’s …” Bernard hesitated, unwilling to finish the thought.

“Yes,” she said, as the figure cleared a space out there among the bones and lay down, as if to nap. “He’s dead.”

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