So apparently I just needed to take a few days off from “Shadows” to recharge my batteries, because I think today’s installment turned out pretty well. Amazing what some rest will do for you. :)
To that end, I think I might switch to a Mon-Wed-Fri update schedule for “Shadows” — that way I’m not stressing about updating on a Knickerweasels day or on the weekend, and I can focus on making the days I do update really count.
Anyway, enough blather. Onto the plot!
Previously: Old Skills
Before Carver came to Kirkwall, he’d never given much thought to sewers: Lothering didn’t have any, and he’d always assumed one reeking cesspit was the same as another. But Maker, how wrong he was. For in Kirkwall there are sewers large enough for men and elves to live in, a foul warren where even fouler men could build shops and hospitals and homes. He thinks of what Thrash and Willis, his old chantry-yard friends, would say about Darktown—of the looks on their faces when he’d tell them of a city so large and rich that people actually sleep in its sewers.
He grins, and for once he doesn’t chastise himself for surviving when they did not.
Like a lily pad floating above its tangled root system, Kirkwall sits atop so many crawling passageways that connect muck and grime to muck and grime, but this particular one is even more disgusting than the usual Darktown fare. Dark, cramped, the passageway is thick with chokedamp and the aftertaste of the Foundry district’s belched fumes. The harsh grind of gears and chains churns just beyond the stone walls. At least, Carver thinks, there aren’t any children begging in here. Small comforts.
But then Carver steps in something disturbingly soft, and he thinks of what an apt metaphor this place is for what his life’s become, and that if he wanted to spend so much of his adult life literally running around in shit, he should’ve stayed in Gwaren and shacked up with that pretty goatherd who propositioned him behind the Yellow Wyvern Inn.
From behind him echoes a wet squelch. Merrill groans, and Carver smiles again, fondly.
“Bet you wish you had shoes now,” he calls back to her.
“Why?” Her voice is genuinely curious. “Running around down here would just ruin the leather.”
Despite himself, Carver chuckles. “It’s better that than get all this on your feet.”
“But I can wash off my feet,” she answers.
“You can throw out shoes, too,” he counters.
“And waste the leather?” She sighs exasperatedly. “Humans.”
Carver shrugs. He knows he should feel more terrified, but as frightening as that abomination in the alley was, being here with Merrill, chatting so easily with her, as if they were two teenagers again, his mood feels lighter than it has in years.
He rolls his shoulders and with no small effort, steps around a large puddle of slick. “Keep your eyes peeled for anything unusual,” he says, turning back and holding his hand out to her.
Merrill ignores his offer and strides right through the dark liquid.
“Carver,” she says sourly, flinching as she shakes out her wet foot, “this entire city is unusual.”
“Then look for something normal,” he replies.
Shouldering his satchel as if it were a sword sheath, Carver strides down the tunnel with as much purpose as he can muster. Merrill follows a step behind, the light from her spirit fire casting dancing shadows on the weeping stone.
They walk for a long time. Though the corridor curves and bends, it does not fork, merely maintains its inexorable path forward, wherever it leads. The sound of crunching machinery grows louder, until Carver can barely think or breathe or focus on the path ahead of him for the oppressive weight of it in his ears.
Merrill grabs his shoulder and shouts something at him.
“I can’t hear you,” he yells, but his words are swallowed.
She rolls her eyes and jabs her finger down the passageway.
Ahead the way is black, pitch, as if an ebony curtain hung suspended between them and the path. The light from her spirit fire does not penetrate the shadow.
A familiar frission of panic snakes up Carver’s spine. He reaches toward Merrill’s arm to turn them both back, but she is already gone, walking toward the blackness, unflinching, unafraid.
In horror, he watches as the spirit fire winks out and the darkness swallows her whole.
“Merrill!” he screams. “Merrill!”
His heart leaps into his throat. For a long moment, Carver cannot move or breathe; and it’s only him and the pitch, no light anywhere to be found. His knees tremble. He has the urge to collapse on the ground, to curl in on himself like a pillbug, a snake head eating its tail. It’s an urge stronger than anything else he has ever wanted.
But Merrill is out there, somewhere. So he forces himself to swallow, to breathe, and he hurls himself in the direction in which he thinks he saw her disappear.
Something slimy and cold slaps against his face, forcing his eyes closed. When he opens them, Merrill stands beside him, frowning, face gently illuminated in spirit fire.
Carver grabs her shoulders and pulls her to him.
“Maker,” he whispers, shuddering as he holds her close. Her hair smells like sewer water. “Don’t scare me like that.”
“Carver,” comes the muffled reply. Merrill hesitates a fraction of a moment before placing her hands on his chest and pushing him back. She does not meet his eyes. “What’s gotten into you?”
“You disappeared,” he says, still gasping for breath. “Everything did. No light. Anywhere.”
“I knew it.” Merrill glowers behind them. “Magic. Someone has placed some very powerful wards here.”
“Wards,” he repeats, knowing that the words coming out of her mouth make sense, but still too shaken to truly parse their meaning. He lets his hands linger on her arms for a moment longer, steadying himself, and Merrill makes no move to shake him off. Then Carver frowns. “Wait a moment. I can hear you now.”
“Exactly,” Merrill says, her lips forming a thin line. “Where did all the Foundry noise go?”
Carver finally feels calm enough to look around, or at least to look anywhere but at Merrill. Behind them is blackness, but before them is only a stone wall.
“A dead end,” he whispers. “Why would anyone put wards around a dead end?”
“Because it’s not,” she replies, fascinated. “It’s a door.”
Placing her hand on the stone wall in front of them, Merrill mutters something in a strange dialect of Elvhen that Carver’s sure she never taught him. Briefly a sigil flares to light along the stone. With a groan, the wall sinks back and moves away, revealing a large, open chamber.
The stench of decay and rot floods out, and Carver reels back, gagging. Light from Merrill’s spirit fire dances along several broken shapes strewn about the ground like rag dolls.
“Elgar’nan,” Merrill gasps, a hand over her mouth. “Are those—bodies?”
Carver spots a severed foot, maggots wriggling out of the meat. He turns away, swallowing back bile. “Lots of them, it seems,” he manages eventually. “Poor sots.”
Merrill stares unblinkingly into the room. “Carver.”
“Does this count as normal?”
“No,” Carver mutters. “It definitely does not.”