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Chapter I: Alone
Silence. A common ally to a thief. It safeguarded your prowl each night, letting you know if you were ever followed or if a guard waited around the next corner. True, silence could be a double edged sword, but once you mastered the art of silence, it was the most trustworthy friend you could ever have. Rieta had mastered that art in Izan’larai, it was not something that had ever bothered her before.
This darkness was not a friend to Selene.
It was alien to her, and offered no solace. Here, beneath the ancient city and bereft of her party, she was truly alone.
Alone, wounded, and separated. If I found myself like this back home, I’d be as good as dead.
Here, maybe it’s a certainty.
Selene pushed the thought away. Those thoughts would kill her far faster than the bleeding arrow from her shoulder or the monsters prowling in the dark.
I have survived alone before. I just need to focus on the here and now.
To keep moving.
Selene hugged one side of the corridor as she moved, hoping to obscure herself from passersby. Considering the size of the corridor, this did very little. Despite her own diminutive size, she filled about half the narrow passageway.
Better than nothing, I guess.
She grunted as her injured shoulder throbbed. Her uninjured hand gripped the wounded area around the arrow tightly.
It was tempting to pull it out, but she knew nothing about nursing a wound like this.
Back on the streets of Izan’Larai, a wound like this was a death sentence. A wound like this attracted disease, provided no time for recovery, and worst of all, no real means to fend for oneself. You are a burden to everyone you know, and you are not worth the effort.
This, of course, is a much better place. Selene thought dryly, Down here, trapped beneath a city filled to the brim with monsters. Easy.
At least I don’t have to worry about starving.
Thankfully, the pressure seemed to slow the bleeding, even if it did little to numb the pain. At some point, she knew she would need to look at the damage and see about wrapping it; but fear, or perhaps desperation, propelled her forward.
I need to find a way back. Back to my…
Selene caught herself a moment as the thought came into form. It was enough of a shock to stop her in her place.
In another context, Rieta would be shocked to find herself attached to anyone. The pain of her loss was something she carried with her each and every step of her journey. It would do no good to add more names to that list.
However, given the dire circumstances, she decided to allow herself this vulnerability. She would indulge in a true fantasy.
Just this once.
It’s no surprise, right? Of course Selene Bryseis has countless friends. She’s brave, strong, everything you would want in a friend or companion in a dark cave. They’d do anything to get her back.
She puffed out her chest at the thought, but hunched over a moment later from the sharp pain in her shoulder. Her grip tightened on the wound in some effort to alleviate the sting as a hiss escaped her lips.
Hard to say if it helps, Selene thought, holding back a small yelp as the pain spiked a moment before returning to a continuous throb, But it’s better than nothing…probably.
She continued her long march in silence until she eventually stumbled across a series of branching pathways. It appeared the maze of tunnels continued on this side of the labyrinth.
Selene did not understand the winding of the corridors, but knew she really only needed to circle back. If the paths are interconnected, she should find one that leads back to the passage her friends took to escape.
If they got out of there, I guess, she thought, pessimistically.
No, I can’t think like that. They are smart, and a lot stronger than me. I just need to find them…
As Selene struggled against her doubt, she decided it was best she stuck with taking every leftmost option available. Visualizing a map in her head, she had likely exited from a passage in the right wall. Leftward travel would put her closer to any passage the rest of the party would use to escape in the chaos.
While passing each crossroad, she also took special care to check and listen down each corridor. She checked for any sign of markings on the walls, anything that might suggest her party passed through. Each time, she found nothing. She also listened closely for another ambush or a wandering patrol.
Selene also decided to continue marking the paths she had already taken, albeit in a more subtle manner. Using her dagger, she marked the wall near the floor with a symbol used by thieves and outcasts. To those that saw it and knew the symbol, it would show the direction she went, to anyone else, it was a strange scratch on the wall. It would be enough for her to see if she had travelled the path before, but it also might be enough to let the party know her trail.
As long as one of them could decipher it.
Selene passed what seemed to be the millionth intersected crossroad. At this point, it was becoming a routine. As she strained herself trying to hear anything down each of the paths, all she heard was the quiet ambience of a natural cave.
Yup. No marching footsteps, no loud sloshing, no monster growls. Seems good, once again.
Despite the lack of monsters being a good sign, Selene could not help but wonder why she had not seen any. Perhap it was because they were all occupied with fighting the rest of her party? A knot formed in the pit of her stomach at the thought.
I know they all can handle themselves far better than I can, but…I can’t help but worry.
All the same, she knew she was powerless to do anything. Not until she found them again. Resigned, she buried her worry alongside her ever-growing frustration and entered the leftmost corridor.
Halfway through the corridor, a strange sensation pricked her ears. A strange sound above the soft din of the cave. She froze in place and listened intently. Even from this distance, the noise was heavy and rhythmic, like the steady beat of a drum. As it approached, she got a clearer tone.
Wet feet smacked against stone in unison, coming from further down the corridor.
Panicked, Selene ran back down the corridor to the crossroad. Once there, she leapt into the nearest adjacent corridor, praying they decided to go down a different one.
As they approached, she hugged the corner tightly. From her position, they would not be able to see her unless they turned around. Every cell in her body told her to keep running, but she was just as afraid that another panicked run might alert which path she went down.
Getting chased in here would just guarantee getting lost. I’ll never find everyone if I have no idea where I am.
Plus…I kinda want to see whatever it is. What if it’s really cool?
Whether that was prudent–more likely foolish– remained to be seen. A few minutes passed before the group of monsters marched through the crossroads. They did not stop to look around, rather they kept apace and went straight ahead.
Selene peaked tentatively around the corner as they passed. They were not anything like the creatures that had hunted her before. They were a strange fish-person hybrid, their skin slick and slimy with black, beady eyes. Despite their alien nature, Selene felt a strange familiarity with them as they passed.
They marched forward side by side, carrying an assortment of tridents and spears. Their garments were old and worn, patched together from a mixture of fishermen’s nets and scraps found lying around.
As the last member passed, Selene counted around twenty in the group. Making a quick mental note to increase that number upon retelling, she stared down the dark corridor after them.
A rogue thought suddenly took her fancy as she stared after them.
I wonder where they’re going.
Tentatively, she moved toward the corridor they entered, staring into the darkness as their footsteps grew further and further away. She was so caught up in her thoughts, she did not consider the proximity of her injured shoulder–and the arrow jutting from it–to the wall. She leaned forward an inch too close, causing the arrow to barely touch the side of the corridor.
Involuntarily, she let out a yelp as a hot searing pain shot through her shoulder.
The sound of her cry echoed, reverberating through the crossroads and down the corridor. She pulled her hand away from the arrow and covered her mouth.
Too little, too late.
The sound of retreating footsteps stopped. Silence fell, but only for a moment. She heard the shifting of bodies and the footsteps began anew.
They were returning to the crossroads.
Selene bit back a curse she learned aboard the Admare. Quickly, she ducked into another corridor to hide from sight while she tried to think of a plan.
I should probably just run away, right? They’ll be looking this time, so I can’t just hide…maybe they won’t hear me. Probably better than just sitting here, even if they do.
An idea began to form as she recalled the events of the previous day.
Could I…do that thing? What was it called again? Shadow…sneak? No, what was it called again?
Selene shut her eyes tightly, struggling to remember the conversation with Ari in spite of the rising panic and throbbing pain.
Shadowstep! That’s what it was. I can Shadow Step right out of this. Just like I did that ugly squid thing.
Selene opened her eyes and lowered her stance as if she was about to bolt down the corridor.
She rose back up, confused. Am I missing something?
The group of monsters continued in their march.
Ok Selene, she thought, trying to psych herself up in spite of the panic, You really need the Shadow Step to get out of this.
Footsteps were getting louder.
Really, really need it.
Wait, wait…now go!
Selene panicked as she wracked her brain, trying to remember how she did it in the first place.
I didn’t escape that squid thing because I was running away, I was running toward a mark.
It’s not about escape, it’s about a goal.
Then what is my goal here?!?
Arveene’s words flowed through her mind, it was the first bit of advice she ever gave to her. Never forget this Rieta, thieving ain’t about the goods, it’s about getting away with whatever you got before they take it from you. Always focus on the coin in your hand over the one in another’s coin purse, otherwise, you’ll lose both instead of just one.
That’s what keeps you alive, Rieta.
“I gotta get away with whatever I got,” Selene whispered.
Her thoughts, once-muddled, now simplified. At this moment, she returned to the alleyways of Izan’Larai, back to the way things were. To a time where there was no expectation, a time where she was only Rieta, a thief on the street. Complexity slows you down, the only thing that matters are the simple struggles.
I’ve got my life. Survival is the only goal. Simple.
She took a breath, time slowed.
I won’t let them take it from me.
Darkness engulfed her. Without a second thought, she ran down the corridor. As she rounded the corner, she noticed something she had not seen before. Slivers of light amongst the folds of night.
Like stars in the night sky.
Somehow she knew those were the fish-men heading down the corridor. As she approached the slivers, Selene rushed past them. Years of travelling through crowds unnoticed, she slipped past without touching a single one. She knew she passed to the other side when she was met by only darkness once more.
Selene found herself slowing down despite herself, and felt the world returning around her.
No. Selene thought, I’m not safe yet, I need to keep moving. I need to get further away.
Fighting to stay in the dark, she tried charging forward. She made it a few extra feet due to her efforts, but eventually she could push no further. It was as if an insurmountable weight fell on her shoulders.
Time resumed as she slowed to a stop.
She found herself once again staring at a dark corridor. The sound of marching steps could now be heard moving away from her.
Relief filled her as she fell to her knees, suddenly feeling very weak from the strain.
As the sounds finally faded from her completely, she spun around to lean against the wall. She stayed there a moment, sucking in huge gulps of air as sweat beaded her brow.
That…was too close.