Storytime Mondays: Time for Reflection

It’s been a couple of weeks without a story, primarily due to my school work at Rowan having reached critical mass. I’ve been forced to focus almost exclusively on writing school papers, and as a result, my blog has been neglected. However, I did remember that I owed you a story this week, so here it is.

This story was originally written in 2003. The setting is the world of an old Dungeons and Dragons campaign I used to play. The specific events in this story don’t directly relate to my D&D game; instead, it’s a separate story set within the same world.

Due to time constraints, I haven’t revised this story from it’s original writing. Thus it is a glimpse into my writing style from over a decade ago.

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Time for Reflection

 

 

Ketrin Van’nouse coughed in the dust stirred up by the explosion he had caused at the tunnel entrance.  The mine had been sealed for years, ever since the supposed ‘hauntings’ of his grandfather’s days had driven all the miners away.  Ketrin’s great-uncle had been one of those miners, and before he passed away he had told Ketrin the tales of the strange occurrences which had eventually ended in several deaths and the closing of the mine.  Most people no longer believed the ‘hauntings’ had actually occurred, but the mine had remained closed nonetheless.

Ketrin snapped his fingers, and a small flame appeared above his palm.  He was hesitant to bring an open flame into the mine shaft, for he knew the dangers of gas leaks in a mine, but fire magic was his only specialty, and he needed a light to see in the darkness of the mine.  A full-fledged mage could use a magical light spell, which generated light without heat, but fire and pyrotechnics were all Ketrin could manage.  Though as evidenced by the power of the explosion he used to get past the mine’s barricaded entrance, he was quite good at what he did.

Ketrin settled his pack on his shoulders and descended into the mine.  Reflexively, he checked the blades he wore strapped to his back, hip, and legs, to make sure all were in place and ready to be drawn quickly.  He didn’t expect there would be any real danger in the mine, aside from the possibility of a cave in, but it never hurt to be cautious.  These hills had once been home to Orcs, and other, more dangerous monsters.  Though none had been seen in recent years, it was always possible the depths of the mine could still be home to any number of creatures.

Iron tracks ran down the center of the passage, used long ago for mine carts carrying ores to the surface.  The tracks were covered in dust, but otherwise looked to be in good condition.  With the mine shaft sealed, the air inside had remained dry over the years, so there was no sign of rust.  Every now and then, a tunnel branched off to the side, but Ketrin ignored these.  He knew they would be dead-ends, where he would find nothing but empty tunnels.  The mine was laid out in a simple pattern on purpose, with only the one main shaft leading in and out.  This made it difficult to get lost, and made it easier to cart out the ores that were mined in the short, branching tunnels.  Each tunnel only went as far back as there had been ore to be found, then ended when the miners were sure there would be nothing left worth mining.

As he descended, Ketrin saw the remains of the miner’s equipment, everything from shovels and pikes used for digging, to ancient timbers and iron spikes that would have been used to reinforce the mine ceiling.  Now and then he saw an old mine cart, some of them still piled with iron and mythril ores, abandoned when the miners had fled the tunnel in fear.  The ores would be quite valuable, especially the mythril, but Ketrin ignored it.  He couldn’t carry that much ore, and Ketrin wasn’t really interested in wealth anyway.  He was always driven by his sense of adventure, and exploring an abandoned mine that may be haunted, or monster-infested, was just the kind of excitement he wanted right now.  He hoped it would take his mind off other things.

His light picked up some flutters of movement along the tunnel roof, and he stepped softly as he realized it was a swarm of bats, sleeping as they hung from the stone roof.  He was deep enough now that the light from the newly-reopened cave entrance was nothing more than a dim pinpoint in the distance behind him.  The presence of the bats confirmed that there was at least one other entrance to the mine, for they would need to fly out at night to hunt for food, which surely wouldn’t be found inside the mine.  The presence of the bats made Ketrin wary, for if there was another entrance, there was no telling what else might be found in the depths of the mine.

Ketrin dimmed his flame as he tiptoed past the bats, not wanting to disturb them.  They didn’t notice his presence.  Stealth was another thing Ketrin was quite good at.  He had learned in the streets of Meliner, taught by his friends in the thieves’ guild.  Ketrin had never chosen to join the guild, preferring to use his talents in a more legal capacity.  Breaking into mansions and pickpocketing the citizens of Meliner had no appeal to an adventuresome young man like Ketrin.

The downward slope of the mine leveled out now, and the tunnel ended in a vertical shaft, where Ketrin saw iron chains hanging down into the darkness below.  An iron winch sat near the shaft, which was once used to raise and lower the lift to the lower levels of the mine.  It was an ancient manual type, though Ketrin was sure a modern mine would have a magically-powered lift to make things easier.  The winch still looked operational, but Ketrin didn’t trust it to work after so many years unused, so instead he dug a coil of rope from his pack and tied it off to the winch, which seemed strong enough to support his weight.  He swung over the edge and braced his legs against the side, walking down the side of the wall as he lowered himself down hand over hand.

Lilliana’s face drifted into his mind as he descended, and he tried to push her away from his thoughts.  He didn’t want to think about her right now, in fact she was most of the reason he was here today.  He hadn’t been out of the city enough lately, because of her.  He rarely ventured outside the city walls anymore, because he kept feeling drawn back to her, wanting to see her, craving a chance to be with her.  He finally felt he needed some time to himself, some time to clear his head by focusing on simple, basic things, some physical exertion to vent his frustrations.

The lower level of the mine was even darker than the top, now that the light of day was hidden by hundreds of feet of rock.  He channeled some more energy into the flame he held before him, brightening the passage a bit ahead of him.  He only had to descend a short distance before he saw the first of the corpses.

There were three bodies lying across the mine shaft floor, little more than skeletons.  The stale air of the mine shaft had partially mummified them, leaving dried out, partially rotted flesh clinging to the bones.  Parts of the bodies looked gnawed on, probably by rats or other scavengers, and what remained of the dead miners’ clothing was little more than tattered rags.  Ancient tools and packs were littered about the ground, and Ketrin even spotted some spilled coins, silver and copper, but he left it all untouched.  He didn’t particularly need the money, and it was always possible the mine was haunted, which would make it dangerous to take anything.  Some stories told of specters who stalked after grave robbers, and that meant it was never a good idea to disturb the dead.  Ketrin wasn’t particularly superstitious, but he was cautious, and his caution had kept him alive up till now.

Stepping carefully around the bodies, Ketrin descended further into the tunnel before he spotted something that made him pause, dimming his flame.  Ahead, the tunnel opened into a wider, taller cavern, probably a natural cave that the miners had tunneled into.  Something was dangling from the tunnel shaft just by the opening, an unidentifiable mass hanging from the ceiling.  It didn’t appear to be alive, and whatever it was, it was green and slimy and dripping some kind of foul smelling fluid onto the cavern floor.  There was a substantial pool of the slime across the ground, too wide to jump over.  Whatever the strange mass was, it had obviously been there some time.

Ketrin edged as close as he could, keeping his flame at a discreet distance.  He didn’t know if the slimy substance was flammable, and he didn’t want to draw attention to himself if there was anything alive in the cavern beyond.  Peering up at the dangling form, he thought he could make out a humanoid shape, but it seemed to be wrapped up in something that looked like seaweed.  Here and there he caught a glimpse of a darker, scaly looking green, which he thought looked like the skin of an orc or goblin.

A corpse hung there, waiting to be eaten?  The slimy, green substance could be something like a spider’s silk, except this looked much denser than even a giant spider’s webbing.  He had also never heard of any species of spider, giant or otherwise, that produced any kind of green slime.

Ketrin tried to peer past the dangling corpse into the open cavern beyond, but his light only reached so far, and he couldn’t see how deep the cavern was.  He didn’t see any movement, and the only sounds in the cavern were his slow breathing, and the steady drip… drip… of the green ooze falling from the corpse into the pool below.  His flame burned clean in the air above him, making no noise and giving off no smoke, as it was fueled only by the power of his will.

Removing his pack, Ketrin fished around until he found his leather purse, which was filled with a few dozen gold coins.  He hadn’t expected to need any money today, but he never left the city without bringing some coins along, just in case.  He dumped the coins into the backpack, emptying the purse, then pulled the strings as far as they would go.  Leaning over the pool. He slowly lowered the purse into the green ooze.  It sizzled when it made contact, and when he pulled it out he saw a small hole had been burned in the leather.  The ooze was acidic.

It was also thick.  He scraped the already ruined purse through the pool, dragging it out along the stone floor, but the ooze didn’t seem disturbed; there were no ripples across the surface, and the ooze stuck to the pouch and wouldn’t scrape off.  Ketrin tossed it aside, and crouched there a moment, thinking.

Lilliana invaded his thoughts once again, and he had trouble pushing her away this time.  He thought of the last time he’d seen her, just one night ago, at her home in Meliner.  He had snuck in through her bedroom window, picking the lock and slipping unnoticed into the house.  He never normally broke into people’s homes, but with Lilliana it was different.  Her father, a wealthy noble of the city, disapproved of her dallying with a ‘rogue’ such as Ketrin was considered to be.  When they first began their affair, Ketrin had been excited by the danger of it, sneaking around, avoiding her father, slipping into the mansion in the middle of the night.  It hadn’t been until recently that he began to realize he was drawn to Lilliana by more than just the danger and excitement.

Forcing his mind back to the matter at hand, Ketrin considered the pool of acidic goo before him.  There was, of course, no good reason to try to cross it, but he had never been one to back away from danger, and besides, he had to find out what was on the other side.  Most likely a deadly monster, he knew, and there wasn’t much chance he’d find any treasure or valuables there.  Just danger and adventure for adventure’s sake.

Which was just what he’d come here looking for.

Backtracking up the slope of the mine, Ketrin put some distance between himself and the pool.  He stopped about fifty feet away, which was the maximum range he could extend his power to.  Any farther away, and he wouldn’t be able to control a flame or produce any energy.  Tightening his mental grip on the flame he had been using to light the tunnel, he drew out the flame’s energy until it was no larger than a candle flame.  This he lowered to the cavern floor, at the very edge of the pool.  He almost cringed as he touched the flame to the ooze, but relaxed when he saw there was no explosion.  He increased the size of the flame, and still nothing happened.  The ooze was neither explosive nor flammable.

Ketrin walked back to the edge of the pool, spreading his flame out larger and lowering it into the pool.  He could keep a flame lit even under water, since it needed only his own willpower to keep burning, so the flame wasn’t doused as it sunk below the surface of the pool.  He could see the glow of the flame beneath the surface, and it illuminated the whole pool easily.  Guiding the flame along the bottom of the pool, he could track its depth by the feel of the flame against the stone.  Trying to push his flame through solid rock felt like pressing a hand against the wall.  He could feel, in his mind, the solid surface blocking him from pushing the flame any deeper.  The pool was only a few inches deep even at the center, but it extended more than twenty feet to the far end.  Nearer to the tunnel wall the pool was only about fifteen feet wide.  That was no more distance than Ketrin had been able to jump between buildings or over crevices in the past, but considering how acidic the ooze was, he didn’t much feel like taking the risk.

Ketrin extended his flame farther into the cavern beyond, strengthening it  to try and illuminate the entire cavern.  It was possible he would be disturbing the cavern’s resident, but nothing had seemed to notice him so far, so it seemed a small risk.

What he saw was more corpses, hanging from the walls and ceiling, which extended over a hundred feet above his head.  Ketrin guessed that the upper tunnel he had passed through was only a short distance above the cavern roof; the original miners had barely missed stumbling across it when they dug the first tunnel.  The floor of the cavern was dark, smooth, and sloped slightly into a bowl-shaped center of unnatural symmetry.  The stone of the floor was darker than that of the walls, the same dark color as the dangling corpses hanging from the walls and ceilings.  It looked to Ketrin like it was the same ooze as the pool before him, only older, and dried out.  He lowered his flame to the ground, and it felt solid when he pressed the flame against it.  He also guessed it lost its acidity once it was dried out.  Which meant if he were a patient man, he could wait for the pool in front of him to dry, and then just walk across it.

Lilliana professed to love his spirit, his romantic flair, and his spontaneity.  She had never known him to be patient.

In fact, Ketrin had already had enough of wasting time and exploring his surroundings.  Caution would keep you alive, but there was a point where things just got boring.

Turning to the closest wall of the passage, Ketrin judged its thickness by tracing a flame along the far side, which was out of sight around the corner in the cavern.  He then stepped back and tensed his muscles as he focused his power on the wall before him.  Generating a flame was as easy as flexing a muscle, and he could sustain it for a long period of time with no trouble.  A more powerful effect took more effort.  A large explosion, like the one he used to blast the mine entrance, required him to focus his effort more delicately.  It was difficult, like flexing every muscle in his body at once, and it was even harder because he had to hold back the force until it was strong enough.  It was like feeding energy into a charging war-horse, while holding it back to keep it from running off at the same time.  If he loosed his control of the force too soon, the explosion wouldn’t have enough power, or could end up misdirecting the force and losing control of the explosion.

On top of that, he had to keep the explosion from backfiring and hitting him as well.  This meant that even after he unleashed the explosion, he had to keep control of a second force, which he used to block the backlash of energy from hitting him.  A smaller explosion, he could channel the blast to only a single direction, but a larger one would create a blast in all directions, including back at him.  This meant he had to guard against his own power, and that made it twice as difficult.

Sweat beaded on Ketrin’s forehead as he felt the power building up to almost beyond his control.  His body tensed and his breathing slowed.  His eyes were clenched shut, but he didn’t need to see, for his mind could feel the air around him.  When he was this focused, he could sense everything around him, in amazing detail.  His mind felt every rough edge of the wall, the slimy ooze of the pool, and the crackling of the air as the energy built up before him.

Moments passed.  The force built to the breaking point.  Ketrin’s ears popped.  He unleashed control.

The wall before him blasted outward, shards of rock flying through the cavern before him.  The mine shaft shook from the blast, and the dangling corpse fell from the ceiling, landing in the pool of ooze.  There was no splash, but the ooze sloshed across the cavern floor, some of it splattering on the walls from the force of the blast.

Ketrin was slammed back into the wall, the wind knocked out of him.  His shield blocked most of the blast, but not all of it, and his head rang out with pain as his skull slammed against the rock wall behind him.  He managed to keep his feet, though it took a few minutes for his head to stop spinning, and for the ache in his chest to subside.

The wall before him was blasted open, allowing him access into the main cavern.  Once he regained his balance, Ketrin stepped forward cautiously, lighting a new flame to guide the way.  His footsteps echoed across the open cavern, and he had to step over several corpses that had fallen from the walls and ceiling.  The cavern was silent now, though dust floated in the air, and Ketrin had to stop himself from coughing.

Something tickled at the back of Ketrin’s mind, and he stopped in his tracks, peering around the cavern.  He felt a presence nearby, but couldn’t see anything around him.  His mind was still very attuned to this area, since his senses had been so enhanced prior to the explosion he had made.  His senses weren’t as acute now as when he was focusing strongly on his power, but there was a residual sensation left in his mind, and it was picking up something.

He swung his flame around the cavern, illuminating the darker corners so he could look for any sign of movement.  He peered intently at the seemingly lifeless corpses, wondering if they were all what they appeared to be.  Two more mine shafts branched off from in different directions from here, but neither seemed to hold anything of interest.  Ketrin drew his flame back towards him, so he wouldn’t have to expend so much effort when there was clearly nothing to be seen.  Halfway across the cavern to him, the flame stopped.

Ketrin frowned, flexing his mental muscles.  He willed the flame to come back to him, but it wouldn’t move.  It felt, to his mind, like there was an obstruction, though he could see nothing that could be blocking the flame’s path.  He moved the flame to the side, tracing the invisible obstruction, and as he did so the flame seemed to…stretch in his vision.  Only for a moment, the fire blurred and warped, like an image seen through ancient, smoky glass that was no longer quite smooth, and bent the light passing through it.  He expanded the flame, and sent it back to the right, and the strange twisting effect could be seen again.  In his mind he felt no change to the flame, he knew it was only his eyes.  Drawn now to investigate, he thought he could make out a nearly invisible outline just before him, though the shape was almost impossible to pick up.  He backed up slowly, apprehension beginning to set in, and suddenly the shape coalesced and became visible; a creature of pure dread charging towards him.

Ketrin drew two of his blades as the thing came towards him.  With its camouflage now dropped, he could see it clearly, but what it could be he still had no idea.  It was huge, towering at least a dozen feet above him, with a giant shell rising from its back another six feet higher.  The shell was almost like that of a giant snail, but the creature emerging from it looked more like a mutated arachnid.  It had at least ten legs, he couldn’t begin to count them as they moved in a blur, pushing the creatures bulk towards him.  Its head was misshapen, grotesque, and looked as though someone had cleaved it down the center with an axe, for the creature’s face, if face it was, opened in the middle to reveal a black, gaping maw, filling with tendrils of dripping ooze, and spiky protrusions that looked like twisted, bent teeth.  Four mandibles protruded from the sides of the mouth, each covered in spikes that looked long enough to skewer him with ease.  The entire creature was covered in slimy, green ooze, which is seemed to be secreting from its body as would sweat from pores.

The creature let out a shrill shriek and flexed its mandibles, and Ketrin saw a lumpy, black mass shoot forth from its mouth.  He screamed, ducked to the side, and screamed again as he felt a fierce burning in his shoulder.  The black goo was as acidic as the pool of green ooze he’d crossed, and it was burning through his clothing and into his skin.  Bits of burnt flesh and acidic goo dripped down his arm, numbing him, and he saw his sword drop from a hand he could no longer control.  He heard the creature shriek again, and he dropped to the ground and rolled away, just barely missing being hit by another glob of the ooze.  His shoulder burned as he rolled across the rock, exposed flesh and muscle scraping against the smooth, hard surface of the cavern floor.  Ketrin rolled unsteadily to his feet, but had mere moments before the creature turned its lethal bulk towards him again.  Focusing his mind and flexing his power, he let out a blast of force, right at the creature’s head.  It wasn’t nearly as powerful as the blast he had used to blow out the wall, but he had no time to spend focusing the power more acutely.  The creature staggered and shrieked, pawing at its face with its front pair of arms, giving Ketrin a chance to run across the cavern, away from the deadly beast.

His shoulder burned, and the black ooze was spreading rapidly.  Fearing he’d lose the arm, but knowing he might lose more than that, Ketrin clenched his teeth and generated a flame right over his shoulder.  The burning heat of the flame combated with the acidic burn of the goo, making his muscles spasm, then go limp.  He screamed in pain, but refused to let go of his concentration, and forced the flame deeper into his skin.  The ooze was not flammable, but his flesh was being burned away, and the goo was dropping off to the ground along with the dead, burnt skin.  His clothes caught flame, but he gathered those flames together in his mind, pulling them away from the cloth, adding them to the flame he held against his shoulder.  When he could bear it no longer, he pulled the flame away, but kept it lit in case it could be of use against the monster.  His shoulder was now little more than a black pit in his flesh, his arm dangled limp and useless at his side.  A few moments ago he had been numb in the arm and unable to feel his hand.  Now he feared there was nothing left of the nerves he had cauterized, and he would never feel that hand again.

Lilliana can fix it, he told himself.  His love was a priestess of Ka the Preserver, and could heal almost any wound, as long as it wasn’t fatal.  He had seen her reattach severed limbs with her holy magic, breathing life back into them, and restoring them to the body whole and healed.  He knew she could do the same for him, assuming he could escape this cavern.

Escape was now his only concern, as he watched the creature turn towards him, and begin racing across the cavern again.  The creature was clearly more than he could handle, and it had already disabled him with its first attack alone.  He doubted his blades would even pierce the creatures flesh, and his flames, he knew, couldn’t burn through that ooze.  He was outmatched, and he was alone against a beast that would take much more than one man to kill.

The passage back to the surface was off to his left; the blasted out wall marked it easily from the other two shafts.  The creature was fast, but from the looks of it, it would be cramped in the small mine shaft, and Ketrin hoped he could outrun it.  Once he got to the vertical shaft and up the rope he had left there, he should be able to get out of the mine safely.  Then it was just a matter of reaching Meliner before he went into shock, and collapsed in the hills to die alone.

Lilliana… He wasn’t a religious man, but he said a brief prayer to Lilliana’s god Ka, before he dashed for the passage.  The spider-thing was already racing towards him, and had to stop to turn when he dashed suddenly in a different direction.  It moved fast though, its multiple legs giving it great traction and control, and it was on his trail again almost instantly.  Ketrin ran for the mouth of the mine shaft, then winced as he saw the puddles of ooze that still covered most of the floor.  He had no time to make his way around the cleared side he had blasted out earlier, for even a moment’s pause would have the creature upon him.  He ran across the puddles, thankful that his efforts had at least disrupted the pool, and spread the goo out so that it didn’t completely cover the floor.  His foot landed in a puddle once, twice.  He nearly slipped in the ooze, but managed to keep his footing.  He felt a burning sensation on his foot, knowing the ooze had already eaten through the sole of his boots, but he kept running.  He heard a loud crash as the creature’s huge shell slammed into the stone ceiling of the shaft, and frustrated squeals as the creature tried to squeeze into the passage behind him.  He almost laughed in relief, realizing the creature would never fit its giant shell through the man-sized passage.  He was nearly at the vertical shaft, sighing in relief, when he heard another shriek from behind him, followed by a sound of rushing air.  He closed his hands on the rope just as a ball of acidic mucus struck him in the back.  His hands clawed at the rope, trying to get a grip, but the burning in his back was searing through his entire body.  Somehow he knew, the ooze was eating through his flesh and reaching his spinal cord, and he could feel his body go numb as paralysis crept in.  He barely felt another splat of ooze striking him as he fell to the ground, limp and lifeless.

Some time later, Ketrin found consciousness again.  His mind was foggy, his head felt as though it was wrapped up in swabs of cotton.  He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t feel his body.  It was easy enough for him to realize what had happened.

Ketrin’s mangled body swung from the roof of the cavern, replacing one of the bodies he had knocked free when he blasted into the cavern.  Green ooze dripped from the wrappings that held him, slowly digesting him.  The ooze sucked nutrients from his body, which the arachnid then drank from the pool in the cavern floor.  When it had its fill to eat, it allowed the soup to harden, creating layers and layers of stored food across the floor of its home.  These it could soften with its mucus, and ingest as needed.  It had sampled Ketrin’s soup as it hung him up, but it wouldn’t need to drink more from him for some time.  Better, it knew, to let the soup age, and absorb all the life there was left in the man.

Ketrin’s mind remained aware throughout the process, as his body was slowly digested over the next year.  He was thankful his body was numb, and he could not feel the pain.  He tried at first to use his power to escape, but his mind was too clouded, and fuzzy.  He couldn’t focus, couldn’t concentrate his will.  So instead he dreamed.

He dreamed of Lilliana.  Her gorgeous face, her long golden hair, the curves of her body the last time they had lain together.  He dreamed of her and prayed she would find happiness with another man.  He knew now, before his mind lost what life it had left, what had made him run away that day.  He loved her, and would always love her.  He had been a fool, running away from her love, because he was scared of commitment.  He should never have left Meliner that day.  He should have asked Lilliana to marry him…

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