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~~~~~

A scarlet sun scorched an otherwise arid world.
For Ishtar, it was nothing short of euphoric. The sunlight soothed her cold-blooded scales, and there was something lovely about feeling warm sand sifting between her clawed toes. Once her feet came into contact with an icy walkway composed of stone, Ishtar returned to wearing some sandals that she was carrying, then she approached an expansive spaceport with her scaly tail swaying in synchronization with her ample hips.
A door automatically parted upon sensing Ishtar's presence. Soon, she was greeted by an expansive interior bustling with traffic as other people moved throughout the vicinity. Despite the sheer number of zenari, the area was orderly and clean. Some were organized into neat lines next to security stations, while others walked to the right side of any open spaces, minimizing potential traffic issues. Electronic displays streamed information about ships entering or exiting the atmosphere. A few stray umok or sthara operated an array of adjacent businesses, stalls, and other complementary services similar to those within an airport.
However, what ultimately caught Ishtar's attention was a single word...
"Mom!"
Ishtar's head perked up. She flicked her tongue from her mouth, simultaneously smelling and tasting the air, allowing her to sense something familiar. It quickly became apparent upon spotting a young zenari woman, who was rapidly moving towards her.
The sight made Ishtar smile. "Vinshu!"
After saying her name, Ishtar spread her arms out. Vinshu's tail rapidly wagged. It wasn't long before she embraced her mother with a hug, and onlookers watched on with smiles on their muzzles as the two nuzzled each other. When all was said and done, Ishtar looked down at her daughter. Although she was slightly shorter than herself, Vinshu had the same caramel-colored hide and glistening bronze scales, albeit her eyes were emerald green compared to Ishtar's amber-brown ones.
"Where is your younger brother?" asked Ishtar.
"He should be with his father!" chirped Vinshu in return. "As for me, I decided to arrive here by myself before waiting for everyone else."
Ishtar cocked her head slightly. "I see. Either way, it is fortunate that I was assigned to what seems to be a paradise world so close to everyone else! Speaking of which…"
She paused to stare at her daughter's outfit, which was minimalistic and designed for the hot weather. It was a stark contrast to Ishtar's more modest and traditional attire. More specifically, Vinshu's shirt exposed her slim and muscular stomach, but she lacked a belly button or breasts due to basic zenari biology.
As a result, Vinshu blinked a few times. "Is something wrong?"
"It just seems like younglings these days keep wearing more and more revealing clothing with each generation."
"Ah, so that means my clothes are somehow a problem?" asked Vinshu as she looked at her own sandals.
Ishtar sneered. "Not necessarily. The climate justifies your outfit a bit. However, if your brother wore something like that at your age, I would discipline him for immodestly exposing his torso and forearms!"
Vinshu shook her head. "Okay, elder."
"Nonetheless, we have many things to catch up on!" hissed Ishtar as she motioned at Vinshu to follow her. Afterward, they started strolling through the spaceport. "So… how has your time been in the hegemonic armed forces? It makes an old woman proud seeing a member of her bloodline following in her footsteps!"
At these words, Vinshu glanced at the ground. "It has been… satisfactory."
"Good! Have you decided upon a specialization yet?"
Vinshu's only response to Ishtar's question was silence.
"Perhaps even a leadership position like your mother?"
"Ah… no."
Ishtar narrowed her eyes. "Then what path are you following?"
"Military intelligence." answered Vinshu.
Ishtar immediately scoffed. "Bah. That position is usually reserved for the likes of other species. Plus it is an oxymoron! Regardless, what would make you decide upon... that... rather than becoming an officer or heavy infantry?"
"The aptitude test recommended it." answered Vinshu. "Additionally, it sounded more ideal than the likes of frontline combat on a regular basis..."
"And once again, you defy our traditions." replied Ishtar with narrowed eyes.
"What of it?"
"A member of the Makari bloodline has never traveled the path you are walking, my dear. Just as long as your service does not bring us shame, there shall be no issues, but it is… unorthodox. Some might even call the occupation cowardly. Unbefitting for our kind. Despite that, sometimes taking uncommon routes can lead to more unique destinations, for better or worse."
Vinshu looked to the side. "Traditions are not always a good thing."
"Please!" said Ishtar with a snort. "It is the essence of our collective wisdom that has survived the passage of time!"
"Yet, the Hegemony's enemies do not care for the old ways. That provides them with some advantages. Well… at least from what I have observed."
Ishtar stopped in place, prompting her daughter to do the same, then she put her hands on her hips. "Like what?"
"Do I even need to mention the perks of cybernetic implants?"
"Well, what you are suggesting is a form of deviancy, Vinshu. Only the joraxians are immoral enough to resort to such invasive measures! Oh, and do not get me started on what happens if a hacker, whether it be a person or an AI, manages to somehow gain remote access to any implants!"
Vinshu directed her attention towards a nearby snack stall as a few others stared at them. "Perhaps we should stop this heated conversation since there appears to be more important matters…"
Following her gaze, Ishtar found herself looking at a food stall. Small insects the size of various dogs were being coated in a sticky substance and allowed to crystallize. A zenari operating the booth scooped them into containers and added different flavorings, much like popcorn. It also helped that the zenari in question was a young and handsome man accompanied by colorful signs scattered around his particular stall.
Both of the women stuck out their tongues with their eyes going wide…
"Pamaken!" simultaneously mewled the two.
Each looked at one another afterward and did a mix of sneering and snickering. Like mother and daughter. Nonetheless, they approached the vendor one at a time and allowed an electronic device to scan devices similar to smartphones. A green light indicated when a payment was processed. Within a matter of moments, Vinshu and Ishtar walked away from the booth with food in tow, albeit the younger one decided upon something spicy, and the older of the two got something sweet. They did a mix of using their purple and serpentine tongues to constrict and suckle on some pamaken to savor it, then sharp fangs made quick work of whatever remained before they gulped it all down.
"Ah, this is so much better!" exclaimed Ishtar as they resumed their journey.
Vinshu made a crooked grin. "Agreed!"
And so, the youthful zenari followed the old soldier. They eventually managed to find seats for themselves near a boarding area, where a constant flow of people entered or exited various ships. Time seemed to pass by in a blur as they casually chatted. As the hours flew by, the sun started setting, and the smiles on their muzzles gradually transitioned into frowns.
Eventually, Vinshu checked the time on her smart device. "Why are they not here yet?"
"I do not know." answered Ishtar. She narrowed her eyes at a nearby electronic sign, which displayed projected arrival and departure times. "It concerns me. The civilian freighter should have arrived already."
"Should we do something?"
"No." answered Ishtar in a firm tone. "I shall do something and you will wait here."
Her daughter cocked her head to the side. "As you wish."
With that, Ishtar walked away with a flick of her tail. She approached the equivalent of a receptionist area and spotted two umok casually chatting behind a desk. A computer terminal and a large microphone partially concealed them. Nonetheless, Ishtar made her presence known by slamming a single fist, making both receptionists jump from their seats a little.
One looked at Ishtar with fear in her eyes. "Uh… can a receptionist help this one with something?"
"Yes." hissed Ishtar between barred fangs. "My husband and son were supposed to be here many hour equivalents ago."
The remaining receptionist perked up his head. "Does the woman recall the specific ship?"
Ishtar answered this question by pulling out her smart device, flicking through a few applications, then showing it to the duo. They both tilted their heads in the same direction once they saw crucial information, such as the ship's designation and departure time.
"Oh." chirped one of them.
"We have been getting tons of questions about that particular freighter from others within the lobby…"
Ishtar looked over her shoulder and spotted various people with concerned looks on their faces. A sthara was even crying at her seat. Afterward, she returned her attention to the receptionists.
"What questions?"
"This one… does not know?" asked a receptionist in return.
Ishtar scoffed. "I do not.”
One umok looked away while the other scratched the underside of his beak. "Um… the civilian freighter has sent out a distress signal. The specific type indicated that they were under attack by mactarian pirates. Since then… we have received no further communications."
In response, Ishtar remained silent for several long moments. Images of partially aquatic creatures similar to sharks flashed through her mind at the thought of mactarian pirates. Then she hissed. Consequently, the eyes of the receptionists go wide. There wasn't much they could do to stop the large woman as she leaned forward and grabbed one of them with a clawed hand. "What else do you know?"
"Nothing! NOTHING!" squawked the umok as Ishtar held him a vice grip.
"We are sorry!" said the remaining one as she backed away.
The commotion caught the attention of others present as they stopped what they were doing to stare. Security guards also began heading towards the scene. As for Ishtar, her world started spinning as she released the receptionist, stumbled backward, then pressed both hands against her head. "This… THIS CANNOT BE HAPPENING!"
When she opened her eyes, the receptionists were gone. Not to mention the security guards, civilians, and even her daughter. Her jaw went agape. "Wait… what? Vinshu? Where is she?"
Suddenly, the lights in the facility went out. Although Ishtar could see in the dark, her surroundings appeared to be slowly fading away for some bizarre reason. The woman began stumbling her way through the area as she made her way towards the last known location of her daughter.
"Where did you go, Vinshu?!"
Ishtar could feel her heart thumping in her chest as her eyes narrowed.
"Please say something!" The woman paused to choke back some tears rapidly forming in her eyes. "I do not want to be alone again!"
Over time, her surroundings disappeared. The battlemaster suddenly found herself standing amid a black void where the only company was herself. She frantically looked around in all directions and began muttering to herself.
"Everything is so cold…"
Something that felt like electricity surging down her spine until it reached the tip of her tail made her shudder. Without warning, Ishtar felt the ground beneath her feet dissolving as if it was quicksand. The moment she looked down was precisely when she started falling, resulting in the woman screaming as tears surged down her muzzle. A bizarre set of sights flashed before her, including snow-dusted corpses next to destroyed human vehicles, a pair of catlike and cyan eyes, and a brief glimpse of her missing son crying. Lastly, an ear-piercing siren caused her to go into a full-blown panic as she swatted claws in all directions.
When Ishtar blinked and opened her eyes once more, she found herself lying on a bed. She jolted upwards while heaving in and out, complete with her tongue sticking out of her muzzle as it momentarily twitched. It took her approximately half a minute to calm down as she held her head in her hands.
"...Not again."
Ishtar internally questioned her sanity when she kept hearing a siren blaring. A quick glance at the room revealed everything was how she left it... except for a bewildered human standing on her desk. She heard Sasha making some faint vocalizations, but without any way of translating them, her barely audible voice came across as complete nonsense if it wasn't interrupted by the sirens.
Nonetheless, Ishtar got to her feet. She urgently walked to the tent's entrance. When she opened the tent flap, a flurry of activity greeted her. Soldiers were scurrying throughout the vicinity with their weapons ready, hegemonic troop transports were arriving as they descended from the skyline, and vehicles were hovering around the area. She wiped away any teardrops still lingering on her face as whatever cold and sad feelings lingering in her heart served as the perfect kindling for a newfound sense of fiery hot rage. Moments later, Ishtar nearly growled at some nearby soldiers helping one another with their armor.
"What the hell is happening?"
They stopped what they were doing and looked at her. Ishtar responded with a death stare, and her height advantage over most of them only added onto her intimidating aura. Eventually, an augmented voice emitted from a soldier wearing a helmet. "Joraxian troops have made landfall."
That was all the information that Ishtar required as she disappeared back into her tent. The slits of her eyes narrowed once the sirens stopped blaring, but it did little to stop the woman from retrieving various pieces of gear from underneath her bed. She also ignored a human shouting at her. Then Ishtar began meticulously putting on her armor, albeit it was a complicated process by herself, and soon a chest piece forged from alien alloys overlapped her skin-tight shirt. Once she put on her helmet, augmented reality vision greeted her while a familiar human voice became far more comprehensible...
"-even understand me?!" shouted Sasha as she clenched her fists. "You big, stupid bitch!"
[I can now.] hissed Ishtar while a human voice bellowed from her helmet.
The color practically drained from Sasha's face before she became dead silent.
[Your petty insults only show how powerless you are, Sasha. They do not offend me. As much as I would love to lecture you about your poor and moronic behavior, I have more pressing matters to attend to.] Ishtar paused to strap some armor into place after putting on her boots. [Speaking of which, a worst-case scenario has just occurred. I'm afraid that it could endanger both you and Suko.]
"Then… what's going on?" asked Sasha while she stumbled back.
Ishtar put on some gauntlets, which had tiny openings for the claws on her hands. [Other species hostile to the Hegemony are currently landing on your homeworld. I'm assuming they want to seize this planet and its resources for themselves rather than allowing us to have it.]
"There's even more aliens…?!"
[Correct.] As Sasha reacted with complete bewilderment, Ishtar grabbed a sizable piece of flexible armor designed to cover most of her tail. She was forced to bring her tail to the front of her body before slowly sliding it on, where she simply strapped it into its proper place. [As before, I expect you to take care of Suko during my absence. Any escape attempts will be harshly punished. Ideally, I can also return with supplies and other materials required for humans to survive.]
Sasha looked down from the desk and at the ground, where she saw nothing but darkness. "I'm not sure if I even want to try escaping considering all of this insanity going on..."
Last but not least, Ishtar picked up her plasma rifle. [Have I not been a good host?] Before the human could respond, she activated her weapon's power core, barely illuminating the room with a faint orange glow. [Actually, your answer doesn't matter. You don't exactly have much of a decision in this matter… but we'll talk about that later. It would be for the best if you just accepted your situation.]
Sasha's only response came in the form of crossing her arms.
Meanwhile, Ishtar disabled her translation software. She made sure her armor was secured, then briefly patted down her body with a free hand to make sure she didn't miss anything. Within mere moments, the battlemaster strolled away from Sasha, exited the tent, and sealed the flap before leaving it all behind to deal with the ongoing chaos.
Her first impulse was to find others within her warpack. Out of the many soldiers swarming the deployment zone, she saw one with distinctive white armor. Rare blue scales visible through the visor of his helmet made it crystal clear who he was. Others were also assembling before him, including familiar faces such as Specialist Andraste.
"Ensign Deimo!"
Despite Ishtar's shouting, the young officer resumed speaking to the others. While grinding her fangs, the battlemaster sifted through their ranks, where she swiftly found other members of her warpack awaiting her. They were all neatly lined up with their weapons at the ready. Some thunder roared above them, but it was hard to tell if it came from a storm, the vehicles, or the many ships flying across the sky.
"...And we will be receiving little to no orbital support." hissed Deimo to the soldiers assembled before him. "Additionally, be warned that humans may actually be able to organize themselves now that they are no longer being relentlessly bombed from orbit. We can thank the joraxians for that. Regarding our own unit, it is being sent to reinforce various soldiers attempting to capture materials and information crucial to understanding the alien technology that these primitive humans are using against us. That is all I have to say since time is of the essence. Are there any questions?"
The various soldiers either cocked or shook their heads.
"Then everyone knows what to do..." continued Deimo, "Move out!"
At his words, the soldiers saluted him. They all took one step back and moved out of the formation, then reassembled themselves around their respective pack leaders. Some followed Ishtar like lost puppies as she forced her way towards Deimo with fire in her eyes.
"DEIMO!"
The man in question turned to face her. "Ah, Ishtar. Do you have any questions or require anything else? I do not have the luxury of being patient."
"Of course!" answered Ishtar. "What exactly is my warpack getting into?"
"As I said, the objective is to assist others with recovering unorthodox human technology." replied Deimo, blowing air from his nostrils.
"And we are doing this while SAP forces are making planetfall?" Ishtar only stopped speaking to scoff. "That is madness. What sort of human weapons are we even talking about?"
Deimo looked to the side. "This one only knows that they are called nukes."
"Nukes…?" repeated Ishtar like a parrot.
"They are apparently some sort of human bombs that destroyed hegemonic troop transports during the start of the invasion." explained the ensign. "Oddly enough, details about them are mostly classified. Our orders are also very strange, all things considered, but I felt obligated to inform you about it anyway considering our circumstances."
"Bah… so be it." muttered Ishtar. "Questioning orders is also proving to be a pointless endeavor."
"Indeed."
Without bothering with responding, she led her warpack away and towards an awaiting infantry transport in the distance. More thunder also made itself known as lightning streaked across the sky. Something about the entire situation sent chills down Ishtar's spine as the word 'Nuke' rattled throughout her skull, but she suppressed her thoughts to focus on the task ahead.

~~~~~
Mactarian Species Reference
~~~~~

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submitted by RetroInferno to HFY

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That Could Have Gone Better Chapter 64

This chapter took longer than anticipated. The world has gotten so chaotic recently. I've got good news though. I'm compiling a second book for the series. Should be ready around December. For now, a new entry.
Enjoy.
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First|Previous
Amelia
My heart was hammering away in my chest, even before I crawled into the oppressively tight tunnel. I followed Dexter’s advice and took carefully measured breaths. I tried to push away all the terror that was building up before hesitantly crawling in. The crack turned into a sloped tunnel almost immediately, slowly descending into the unknown blackness. A single orb of light materialized as I cast Illumination and sent it to drift forward, lighting the way into the darkness. The dark grey stone surrounding the orb was unnaturally smooth, as if the rough formation of stone around it was alien to this tight passage. “Wide open spaces. Towering buildings. Mountaintops.” I kept my active mind fixated on big thoughts and tried to block myself from thinking about the stone walls not two inches from my face. I let out a slow breath as I crawled forward, the stone beneath me pressing into my stomach. The low ceiling forced me to keep my head just as low and did little to help distract from my claustrophobia. “Keep moving. Keep Moving. Keep moving.” I inhaled as I pulled myself further, the heat of the day traveling further and further down my legs as I disappeared from sight. The cold and damp stone pulled away what little heat my body would make, as if sucking the very life out of me. The tunnel kept its size for at least six feet, but the orb that lit my way was too weak to be certain any further. I felt a tight knot forming in my stomach as I crawled, trying to scream out as I went deeper into the earth. “Sugar sand beaches. Salt flats. Empty plains.” I began from the beginning as my list of large places ran dry. It felt like I had been crawling for hours, but I reminded myself it had only been a couple of minutes. The knot in my stomach persisted as I slowly pulled myself forward, the rock painfully scraping my shoulders as I moved.
I stopped in the cave for a moment as I closed my eyes and focused. It felt hard to breathe, the wall closing in to swallow me. “You can do this. You can do this.” I whispered to myself. I wiggled my feet, hoping that they were still in the sunlight, but I felt my heels and toes tap on stone. “FUCK!” The reality of the situation suddenly came crashing down on me and I felt the knot twist painfully. My breathing became unregulated as I concentrated on not vomiting. “You’re okay. You’re alright. The stone isn’t moving. It’s unmovable. You still have plenty of space to breathe. Just Breathe, Damn It!” My head began to swim, the knot continuing to twist as I struggled to take in air. I pressed my hands to the floor as I tried not to panic. “D-Dexter!” I stuttered weakly, my voice barely echoing off the cold walls. “I-I don’t think I can do this. I-I’m scared.” I was hoping for a response, something to give me stability, but nothing came. My heart twisted in my chest and I felt my fear grow as I gripped the rock in a panic. “D-Dexter?” I called louder, the tremor in my voice echoing as I tried to look behind me.
A wave of relief washed over me as a voice called back. “Amelia?” Dexter asked. “Are you okay?”
I let out a sigh as I gripped the beacon tight. “I’m scared,” I repeated, tears and shame welling up within me. I was trembling against the cold hard stone beneath me. The orb of light snuffed itself out as I lost concentration and was plunged into darkness, adding to my already mounting fear. “I don’t think I can do this,” I said shamefully, closing my eyes against the darkness. I let out a shaky breath as I waited for Dexter to reply.
Dexter took a moment to respond, leaving me alone with my pounding heart for what felt like ages. “I know you must be scared.” He finally replied, giving me a sense of comfort. “I can’t imagine what you’re seeing right now or what you’re feeling, but I know you can push through your fears.”
I felt a twinge of apprehension as I let out a slow sigh. “There's no way you could know that.” I half sobbed, fear and shame practically dominating my thoughts. “You’ve been the one to take charge when things got tough. I’ve just been watching from the sidelines as you jumped headfirst into danger, without a care in the world. I can’t do the things you do. I’m just too afraid.” I hung my head in shame as the tears started to flow freely. “I just want to go home.”
It was barely audible, but I could have sworn I heard Dexter let out a sigh. “So do I.” Was the response that drifted down. There was a pause and a scraping of cloth on stone. My tears slowly subsided as Dexter continued to talk. “I’m sorry if I seem distant about this, but I try not to think about it too much. I know if I let myself, I’ll never stop. I miss home. I miss getting to talk to my family. I miss hearing about Mathew’s dissertation, Amanda’s college schedule,” An amused chuckle suddenly echoed down the tunnel. “Funnily enough, I miss cousin Reggie’s self-centered bragging. … I know you miss home, I do too, but we have no way of getting there right now. I wish that wasn’t the case, but we know too little to make any headway there. We might as well try to fight off an alien invasion with rocks and sticks.
I let out a sigh as Dexter finally finished his monologue. A lump had developed in my throat and I wiped away one of my panicked tears as I chucked at Dexter’s misunderstanding. “I meant go home to the barn,” I called, momentarily forgetting about my fears. “I know we can’t make a Banestorm right now. I just want to get out of this cave.”
A palpable silence hung in the air for a moment before Dexter let out an “Oh,” and it echoed down the tunnel. I chuckled to myself as Dexter tried to play off the misunderstanding. “I guess that would be the first and only place to go. Don’t really have any other options now, do we.”
I shook my head and felt my chin rub against the stone floor. “We don’t,” I admitted softly.
Dexter was silent for another moment as my heartbeat quietly in my chest. “Are you sure you want to come out?” He asked. “We might not make it back in time before they move. If they have the commander, they must be leaving soon.”
I let out a long sigh as I closed my eyes and lay in the narrow darkness. I finally noticed I was no longer panicking, just really really stressed out. I let out another sigh as I thought hard for a moment. “Do I really want to leave Orthan down here? Will we have time to return if we do? We could ask Garahk for more help, but will she want to if we don’t bring back proof of the elves? Will she want that before helping us? Am I willing to accept the idea that Orthan might die if we leave now?” My heart twisted in my chest as I shuddered at the thought. “Can I live with myself if he does?” I let out another sigh as my heart hammered away in my chest. This time, it wasn’t out of panic, but dread. I clenched my eyes shut as I asked myself one more question. “Can I face my fears?” I swallowed nervously as I knew the answer to the question. I turned slightly to direct my voice more efficiently out of the tunnel. “Dexter?” I called up.
“Yeah?” Was the response that echoed down, giving me a sense of comfort at Dexter’s presence.
I turned back as I opened my eyes and looked into the depths, the center of my fears. The blackness felt like it was threatening to swallow me, but I swear I could see a dim light flowing from the entrance of the tunnel. That faint light was all I needed. “How long has it been since I crawled in here?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the darkness before me.
Dexter paused for a second, as if hesitating, before answering. “You can’t have been down there for more than five minutes.” He called. “Most of that was spent talking; So, maybe two minutes crawling?”
I nodded as I gripped the beacon tight, the sharp corners digging into my palm as I pursed my lips. “Can we talk while I crawl?” I asked hesitantly. “I’d feel a lot better if I get to hear someone with me.”
There was another pause as Dexter seemed to think. “I don’t see why we can’t try that.” He finally answered. “I don’t think it’ll work forever, but we can try for as long as we’re in each other’s earshot.”
I nodded again, my chin rubbing itself on the floor. “I’d like that,” I called. “At least to make sure for how long I’ve been down there. I didn’t realize till now it had only been down here.”
I heard a shuffling and the telltale beep of Dexter’s watch as his voice called down the tunnel. “I’ll tell you whenever ten minutes goes by. Does that sound good?”
I let out a sigh again as I thought about how long I had been down here already, and that it was only half the time that ten minutes would be. “Can we do five?” I asked. “Ten seems like a big number.”
Dexter let out a grunt of affirmation as his watch beeped again. “Don’t worry. I’ll try to keep you company for as long as I can. So long as there aren’t any strange twists in the tunnel, that should be for a while.”
I nodded as I let out another breath, the cold stone beneath me now slightly warmer. A single gesture caused an orb of light to materialize, illuminating the small tunnel. “So, what made you want to study mechanical engineering?” I asked, trying to come up with the first topic. “I remember you mentioned wanting to study that the first day we met.
I heard Dexter chuckle as I pulled myself forward, the orb lighting the way as I went. “Haha. Well, I always wanted to be an engineer and mechanical seemed like the most useful. Plus, I always had a fascination with the mechanical world, the devices that worked without computers or digital input. Of course, I planned to have a minor in sound engineering, but that’s beside the point.”
I chuckled myself as I continued to crawl, the idea of Dexter having the patience to work as a sound engineer almost baffling. “You? A sound engineer?” I laughed. “I never thought you’d want to be a sound engineer.”
Dexter laughed again, vibrating the stone tunnel almost imperceptibly. “The collection of music didn’t clue you in? Who the hell keeps what amounts to terabytes of songs on countless hard drives without a good reason? I wanted to remix some of my own songs while in college. I wanted that to be my hobby, something that I could focus on without being expected to do it. I even had Nathan install some software on my computers for that very purpose. It’s a shame I’ll never get to do it now.”
I chuckled again as I dug my toe into a dent in the tunnel and pushed, sliding me forward another few inches. “I never would have guessed,” I called, finally forgetting about the tight tunnel around me. “Why make it a minor then? Why not go for the major?”
I could hear Dexter’s knuckles snapping, even from this deep in the tunnel. “Because it’s not too useful in the practical world. It is when there are jobs for it, but without that, there isn’t much use for being able to balance different channels. Besides, the real goal of the minor is to gain an edge in the sphere of DJs.”
At that, I couldn’t help but stop and laugh. “Okay, now you have got to be pulling my leg. I never would have thought you’d want to be a DJ with how you behave.”
Dexter chuckled again, a beep signaling his watch had gone off. “Wow,” Dexter remarked. “Five minutes goes by real fast.”
I nodded as I looked further into the tunnel, the orb illuminating a brand new stretch of rock. “Yeah, talking can be a real time-killer. I hardly noticed the time fly.”
Dexter laughed again, another beep likely setting the watch’s timer to run again. “Yeah, it really does. Anyway, what made you want to be a psychologist? Did you have a particular field of therapy you were studying?”
I let out a grunt as I pulled myself through a particularly tight part of the tunnel. “Money, mostly,” I responded. “I hear they pay pretty well and I’ve always had an interest in the psyche of people. So, I figured why not get paid for it.”
I heard Dexter cackle loudly as I twisted my foot and pulled it through the gap. “You didn’t have any other reason for studying psychology?” He asked. “I figured you’d be the kind of person that wanted to get into the field to help the ones that needed it.”
I let out a laugh of my own as I continued crawling, the tunnel opening up one more to allow for more breathing room. “I’m flattered that you thought so highly of me.” I quipped. “Sadly, that wasn’t my main motivation. I was just in it for the money.”
Dexter let out a barely audible hmm as his watch beeped again. “That’ll be fifteen minutes in total.” He called. “How does the tunnel look?”
I let out a sigh as I looked up, the orb still lighting only six feet in front of me. “Nothing much is different, honestly,” I replied. “I’ll let you know if I find an open area.”
Dexter let out another hmm as his knuckles cracked loudly. “Fingers crossed we’re actually right about this. It would suck if this tunnel just dead ends.”
This time, Brokil was the voice that called down. “My master was never mistaken when it came to the natural world. The tunnel will not end abruptly. I am certain of it.”
I nodded as I let out a sigh and pulled myself further. “Fingers crossed then,” I shouted up the tunnel. I continued crawling as Dexter and I went back to talking; twenty minutes in the tunnel, thirty minutes in the tunnel, forty minutes in the tunnel. All the while, I found myself having to raise my voice more and more as Dexter’s got fainter and fainter. We talked about our childhood, our siblings, family reunions. We exchanged anecdotes about our time in high school, the after-school clubs, even the odd rumor and controversy that permeated the school. The conversation helped distract me from the oppressively close walls of the tunnel. The stone appeared to aid in maintaining the intensity of Dexter’s voice as it only slightly faded as I crawled. Our conversation turned to our immediate family again as I heard a pang of longing in Dexter’s words. I felt a similar emotion of nostalgia as my mind wandered to my own home. Fortunately, Dexter was more than willing to talk about his siblings and distract me from the feeling.
Dexter even told me about his oldest brother, Mathew, and his girlfriend. He was the one sibling that was close to graduating with a Ph.D. of his own. Dexter swore up and down that the two seemed made for each other. “They seem to get along for just about everything.” He explained. “Brains, ambitions, hobbies, I think it’s only once in a blue moon they end up disagreeing on anything.” He was suddenly quiet for a moment as I pulled myself forward, stone rubbing against my shoulders as I squeezed through another narrow passage. “I wonder how they’re doing now.” Dexter pondered solemnly. “It's been what, three months? They must be worried sick.”
I let out a grunt as I dragged myself forward. “Can we talk about something else?” I called. “I’d rather not think about home right now.”
Dexter nodded as his watch went off again. “That marks almost an hour.” He remarked. “Are you doing okay in there? Any place we can teleport in?”
I shook my head as I looked up, the dark tunnel barely illuminated by the orb in front of me. “Still nothing,” I shouted back. I pulled myself forward more as I steered the conversation into something more palatable. “Any idea what we’ll do after this?” I asked. “What’s next on the priority list?”
The tunnel was silent for a moment. I imagine Dexter had sighed at the idea. “I’m not sure.” He admitted. “I know we only have so long before the Harvest Festival, but I can’t decide how to prepare for it. I want to learn more magic and help develop better spells, but it won’t help us unite the tribes.” The tunnel was silent again, save for the shuffling for my crawl, another sigh. “There are thousands of different outcomes that could occur from our actions, hundreds of different beginning states, and that’s not even considering all the possible configurations for each of the tribes being at the festival.”
I nodded as I let out a grunt and squeezed through another tight area. The walls were somehow growing smoother, like the rocks at the bottom of streams. “I’m sure we’ll be able to figure it out,” I called. “We just need an angle to play.”
There was another stretchy of silence. This time, I wasn’t sure what Dexter was doing. He was practically having to yell to get me to hear him so he could be doing close to anything. “Another five minutes have passed, if you couldn’t hear.” He suddenly called. “I say you go for another fifteen minutes before calling it quits. I’m starting to question how far that tunnel goes. You might be crawling for hours before finding a good place to teleport it. It might be best if we head back and get someone that can transform into a weasel or something. At least then we won’t have to worry about the tunnel getting too small.”
I nodded as I let out another grunt, looking up to see how far the tunnel went. “I mean, the elves must have gotten in this way. They can’t have disappeared for no-” I stopped as I noticed the meager distance the orb in front of me illuminated. Instead of six feet till darkness, only about four feet of the tunnel was illuminated. Then there appeared to be a drop-off and the last two feet turned to blackness. My heart skipped a beat as the reality of my situation became apparent and the idea of an open space sent waves of relief through me. “I think I found something!” I called, scrambling forward with all my might.
Through my excited crawling, I could hear Dexter shouting down. “Are You Okay? Do You Need Help?”
I shook my head as I pulled myself further, the last three feet opening up just enough for me to reach forward and grip the ledge in front of me. I pulled myself forward in relief as the tight passage opened up into a monstrous cavern. The hole I was emerging from was about five feet from the cave floor. The orb rose up and did it’s best to light the large space, but it barely glinted off the surface of the damp stone. I let out a sigh as I grabbed at the wall, finding thin handholds and pulling my legs out. I dropped to the floor in relief as my escape from the claustrophobically small tunnel sent chills down my spine. “It’s A Cavern!” I called, looking up at the hole I’d just emerged from. “I Think You Guys Can Teleport In Down Here!”
There was another moment of silence, likely Dexter talking to the others and discussing the next course of action. Finally, his voice called back as the beacon in my hand began to glow. “Find a flat surface to place the obelisk. We’ll be down in a minute.” I nodded as I looked around. The cave was enormous, stalactites and stalagmites growing about a foot in either direction, leaving at least a dozen feet between each other. The walls themselves almost gave the illusion of a large house, giving my claustrophobia ease, despite my depth underground. It let out a sigh as I walked forward, placing the sharp obelisk on the ground as it glowed brighter. I began to stand, backing away in preparation of the other’s arrival, when I froze, a faint glimmer alighting just a little further into the cavern. The glimmer took on a notably runic shape, causing the joy to drain from my face and be replaced with dread. The glimmer grew brighter in tandem with the beacon, revealing the tiny sliver of stone it was carved upon.
Dexter
I felt no small amount of relief as I heard Amelia shout from below about finding an open cavern. Truth be told, I would have hated to be in her shoes and have to return after an hour of crawling through a narrow passageway. It’s like having to delete your homework after spending an entire day on it. In any case, one spell and a quick squeeze later, and the rest of us found ourselves in a dark cavern, lit only by the faintest of light from an orb that was already present. I turned and spotted Amelia standing beneath the orb, her eyes wide in fear. I smiled at her as I walked over and hugged her, trying to be reassuring in what must have been a stressful situation for her. “I’m so sorry I had you do this,” I said comfortingly. “We’re here now though. We can do this together.” I pulled back to see if she felt any better. My grin faded as I saw the continued look of horror on her face. “What’s wrong?” I asked, pulling away. I had finally realized she wasn’t reciprocating the embrace.
Amelia lifted a shaky finger as she pointed towards where we had materialized. “They’re here.” She said, almost in a whisper.
I turned in surprise, expecting the elites to be right behind us. The other mages did the same, turning and preparing a variety of spells. All we saw, however, was a room of near blackness, a typical cavern punctuated by minute drips. My heart raced as I crept forward, squinting to see what Amelia was referring to. “What do you-” I stopped as I finally noticed what she was pointing to, a second stone pendant, a few feet behind our own, adorned with a similar set of symbols our beacon was carved with. I glided forward as quietly as I could, not daring to disturb the threatening blackness around us, and stooped to pick up the item. Up close, it was definitely another beacon, this one made out of a smooth piece of black stone, the small orb barely illuminating the runic symbols carved into its four faces. The bottom seemed somehow smushed as if it had been pressed flat. My heart pounded in my chest as I turned back to the others, holding up the magic item. “They’re close,” I whispered, matching Amelia’s previous gasp.
Dumag’s eyes grew wide as he saw the tiny sliver of stone. “We must hurry.” He whispered, turning to the others. “They could be departing as we speak.” He then began to rush forward but was stopped.
Brokil had grabbed Dumag’s shoulder and whispered his own warning. “Then we must not alert them to our presence.” He whispered. “If we can, we must pounce upon them. We cannot do so if we rush in unprepared.”
Dumag wrench Brokil’s hand from his shoulder as he glared at him in the dim light. “I am aware of what must be done.” He hissed. “I was prepared to resume my nephew the moment I knew these sarding elves took him. I need no reminder of how-”
“Dumag!” Bruga hissed, catching everyone’s attention. “This is not the time to argue.” She nursed her arm and I noticed her shaking slightly. “These are people that are not to be taken lightly. The last time an obstacle was underestimated. We-” Bruga swallowed and tensed at the thought. “We did not come out unscathed.” My stomach sank as I realized she had been holding the thought in for a while. Dumag appeared to notice too and his face softened, gazing at Bruga with an expression of regret. Bruga continued. “We must approach them carefully and deliberately. If we give our presence away that will only aid them in repelling and escaping us. They likely know these caverns at least somewhat if they chose to establish a hideout here.” She looked at Dumag, returning his gaze with a pleading expression. “We cannot argue amongst each other if we wish to be victorious.”
Dumag continued to stare at Bruga for a moment then let out a reluctant sigh. He then turned to Brokil as his shoulders slumped. “I apologize for my outburst.” He whispered. “I am anxious to find my nephew.”
Brokil gave him an understanding nod as he glanced further into the cavern. “I would be too, were I in your predicament.” He admitted. He let out a sigh as he turned to me. “Now then, how should we proceed? What should be done to subdue and contain these intruders?”
I let out a sigh as I glanced further into the cave and cast my mind about. The dim orb did little to reveal the cavern we were standing in, but I could still make out the faint outline of a tunnel at the far end. I began constructing a map of the cave in my mind, centered where we’d just teleported in. “We should take stock of what we have.” I finally replied, standing up, elven beacon still in hand. “Anything that gives us an advantage in the cave should be pulled out and ready for us. Any spells that are useful in tight spaces should be on the shortlist of ready incantations.” I turned back to the others as I ran through my mental list of what was in my pack; the spellstones, some food, and the bag of manastones. “We have one chance at this,” I said grimly. “Let’s make it count.”
With that, we began sorting through what we’d brought. To be fair, everyone knew what they had personally brought, but it was a good idea to make sure everyone knew what the others had brought as well. It shouldn’t have been surprising, but I was the most underequipped out of all of us. Even Amelia had brought that owl-shaped pendant. I had my sword, but it wasn’t enchanted at all and I had yet to cast a spell while trying to wield it. When it came to it, I’d have to choose which action would occupy the dominant hand. The rest of the mages had similar levels of preparedness. Salthu had brought several scrolls of spells, aids for if he needed a particularly complex combat spell. Gremach had a few bottles and manastones in case his mana-pool ran dry. Brokil had one of those sun-lamps from the archive, a staff of water-manipulation, as well as a few spellstones of his own, similar to what Amelia and I had brought. Bruga, in contrast, had stocked up on defensive and healing items; Shield spellstones, red potions, and a scepter of earth manipulation. Dumag was the most well equipped out of all of us, his expansive bag holding numerous scepters, manastones, spellstone, and paraphernalia for alchemical purposes. He even brought two of his own owl-eyed amulets. I picked up one of them as I spotted the similarities. “What does this do, anyway?” I asked. “We haven’t dared try out the one Amelia and I kept.”
Dumag picked up the other one and showed the other mages as he explained. “They are nocturn amulets,” he replied. “They allow for sight in low light; useful when stealth is paramount.”
Brokil nodded as he suddenly reached into his shawl and pulled out his own owl-eyed pendant. “I initially thought these were for nightly explorations. However, considering the origin of these items, perhaps it is meant to explore caverns similar to this one. They may serve well for combating cavernous creatures. Considering our circumstances, it may be best to use them.”
I nodded as I glanced at the four amulets we had, then at the seven of us present. “I don’t suppose we brought three more of those?” I asked no one in particular. Bruga, Salthu, and Gremach all remained silent. I let out a sigh as I rubbed my head. “Then we’ll need to pair up. Four people take the amulets and lead the other three through the cave. Sound like a plan?” The others nodded in agreement and I let out a tired sigh. “Alright. First, we should decide who should and shouldn’t get the amulets.” I began pointing at each person as I listed. “Salthu., you’ll want to concentrate on getting ready for the fight. So, you’ll be stuck close to someone with an amulet. Amelia, there might be some tight places to squeeze through so you’ll stay close to me. Bruga, you stick close to Dumag. You can decide which one gets the amulet. That means I, Gremach, and Brokil will take the remaining three pendants. As for armaments, we shouldn’t try and risk a cave in and go for low impact spells; no move earth spells, no explosions, nothing that could destroy the integrity of the tunnel. Got it?” They nodded in agreement again and I sighed as I stood and stretched. “Then let’s get going. The elites have to be close.” With that, we began packing everything back up.
The stones wouldn’t serve me well if I was holding a sword too. I gibbed the hilt of my blade nervously as Amelia walked over. She had an equally nervous expression on her face as she gripped the strap of her satchel. “Are you sure we can do this?” She asked in a whisper. “You’ve never had to deal with them. How can you be sure we’ll be okay?”
I let out a sigh as I cast my mind about. I knew why she asked. She needed reassurance. To be honest, I needed that too. “We’ll get the drop on them.” I finally replied, turning to her. “The element of surprise should be enough to counteract any experience they have. That’s all we need, the element of surprise.”
Amelia let out a sigh as she glanced further into the cave, the blackness hiding what must have been the elites. “I hope you’re right.” She whispered, barely audible to anyone besides me and her.
I let out another sigh as I took the owl-eyed pendant in my hand. The carved metal glinted in the dim light of Amelia’s orb. I pulled it around my neck as I turned in the direction Amelia was looking. The blackness shimmered for a moment as the pendant settled on my chest then disappeared as the entirety of the cave was revealed. I couldn’t help but take in a breath as I looked out at the expanse before me. With only Amelia’s orb, the space around us was barely in view, but with the pendant, the far wall appeared aglow with light. Despite how deep we already were, the cave sloped down further, stalactites and stalagmites grew near the cave wall, forming a path that led to a tunnel on the far side of the cave. I’m not sure how, but every surface was sprinkled with reflective stone, bathing the cavern in an illuminating light. I felt a grin creep across my face as I looked up and saw a twinkling of stars on the cave roof. “Wow,” I remarked, watching the blinking lights. “I didn’t know there could be so much light in a c-” I froze as a shuffling of movement caught my eye. A spindly creature that was crawling along the ceiling, little bigger than a speck at this distance, but it was enough to know the thing was at least as large as my palm. My awe turned to horror as I counted four, five, six, seven- I quickly turned around and practically ripped the pendant from my neck, my heart racing in my chest. The others turned to me in surprise as I took in deep almost panicked breaths. I shut my eyes, preferring the dark over the scuttling I’d seen on the ceiling, now realizing the twinkling wasn’t an illusion. Creatures were briefly blocking my view of the ceiling, making it look like the lights were- “DON’T SAY IT!” I thought to myself. “You know what’s up there. You can’t freeze here. We’ve already come so far. You can’t back down now, not over a bunch of-”
“Dexter?” Amelia asked, making me jump. I reached for my sword as she gave me a concerned look. “Woah Woah.” She said defensively. “What’s wrong?” She asked, looking for the source of my unease. “What did you see.”
I instinctively looked up, my stomach twisting as I prepared myself for the worst, but mercifully all I saw was blackness. I let out a forceful sigh as I looked down, the pendant still gripped in my hand. My fingers were trembling, the sight had truly shaken me. I shook my head and brought myself out of my stupor as I turned to Amelia, holding out the amulet. “On second thought, you take this,” I said, presenting the magical item. “I’ll only get in the way if I can see.”
Amelia gave me a concerned look as she hesitated for a moment before taking the artifact. “Are you sure?” She asked. “We might not have a chance to change once we get going.”
I glanced up at the pitch-black ceiling again before nodding. “It’s for the best,” I confirmed. “I won’t be much use if there are more of those things up there.”
Amelia gave me a confused look then slipped the pendant around her neck and turned upward. She squinted for a second, then her eyes widened as she finally spotted the creature. “Oh,” was the whisper of a remark that escaped her lips.
I nodded and rubbed my neck guiltily as I looked away. “I don’t do well with spiders,” I muttered quietly. “I can’t explain why. They just … freak me out.”
Amelia nodded as she gestured, extinguishing the dim light of an orb and plunging the cavern into darkness. “We shouldn’t waste any more time,” Amelia said, her voice my only anchor in the cavern. “We have a quest to complete.”
A grunt of agreement sounded from my right, then a shuffling as the others prepared to move. I heard the shimmer of a gemstone as Dumag’s voice sounded from the blackness. “May the gods smile upon our endeavor,” he muttered.
I let out a sigh as I stepped forward and reached out, trying to feel my way towards Amelia. The blackness was a welcome alternative to the roof of the cavern, but I still couldn’t see. I was tempted to voice my concern when Amelia grabbed my reaching hand gingerly. I was tempted to squint to try and see her outline, but there wasn’t much point in it. The only source of light was now gone. Amelia’s voice emanated soothingly from the darkness directly in front of me, her other hand cupping my face. She chuckled gently. “You know, this pendant really is something. Your eyes are practically glowing in this light.” I felt her thumb trail the side of my face, her soft hands an added comfort of the darkness. “Well, one of them, anyway.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle as I blindly reached up and cupped her hand in mine. “Let me guess, the blue one?”
Amelia giggled in the darkness. I could only imagine what I looked like with that pendant around her neck. “It looks amazing,” she whispered. “It’s like watching a constellation in the night sky. I wouldn’t mind getting to see you like this again.”
I chuckled again as I grinned at the darkness., still not quite sure where Amelia’s eyes were. “I wish I got to have a look at you, before …” I trailed off as I mind drifted towards the creeping shadow on the ceiling., my heart beginning to race again as the thought of what was there unnerved me. I clenched my teeth and took a deep breath as I tried to remain calm.
“It’s okay,” Amelia whispered, cupping my face more firmly. “You don’t have to say it. Just being near them can’t be pleasant, even if you can’t see them.”
I let out a sigh as I glanced at the ceiling. The blackness hid what would surely be my worst nightmare. “I just want to burn them all,” I growled. “However …”
“Any spell could draw the attention of the elites.” Amelia whispered, finishing my sentence.”
I nodded as I let out a defeated sigh. “I can’t wait to get away from here,” I growled. “If I ever get the chance, I’m going to make a spell that quietly gets rid of any spider in the area.” A shudder rand down my back. “Fucking hate them.”
Amelia chuckled again as she took my hand, guiding it to grip her shoulder. I held it tight as I finally heard the shuffling of the others creeping deeper into the cave. Amelia stepped forward as she kept my hand pressed close, guiding me through the blackness. “That can be for later,” she whispered over her shoulder. “For now, let's find their camp.”
I nodded as I reached back, grabbing the shieldstone from my bag. “And Orthan,” I whispered. Amelia’s hair rubbed against my wrist as she nodded, leading me further into the cave system. I gripped the spellstone tight as I strained my ears to hear, ready for any unexpected attack.
submitted by spidergod99 to HFY